Making sense of life cycle wars


From model to reality


Advances in Project Management


By Prof Darren Dalcher

Director, National Centre for Project Management
Lancaster University Management School

United Kingdom

This paper reconnects with the life cycle concept in light of recent conversations within the project management space seeking to create a more definitive or prescriptive formulation of life cycles. It draws upon and reflects on similar discourse and sentiments expressed within the software development community over forty ago, as well as opening a further dialogue and positioning additional contributions in this area, thereby setting the scene for renewed dialogue around the role life cycles as a project shaping, structuring and organising device.

In life cycles we trust

The notion of the life cycle is essential to any project, undertaking or initiative which endeavours to determine, devise, develop, deliver or deploy new content, structure, deliverables, artefacts, or any other form of change. One could argue that anything that extends beyond business-as-usual and requires a blueprint for change, therefore merits a life cycle-driven representation. Indeed, Professor Peter Morris, resolves that ‘the project development (life) cycle is the one thing that differentiates projects from not projects’ (Morris, 2013; p. 116).

The skillset focusing on the life-cycle of projects is critical to both understanding and practising sound management. The life-cycle represents a path from the origin to completion of a venture. Division into phases enables managers to control and direct the activities in a disciplined, orderly and methodical way that is responsive to changes, adaptations and complications. Phases group together directly related sequences and types of activities to facilitate visibility and control thus enabling the completion of the venture’ (Dalcher, 2002; p. 60-2).

The 7th edition of the APM Body of Knowledge, reminds managers that whilst there are many ways of structuring and organising project-work, one of the more important shaping decisions revolves around the choice of the approach and the associated life cycle that matches that philosophy.  Indeed, life cycles are fundamental to management of project-work. Dalcher (2002; 2019) provides a detailed rationale for the use of life cycles in projects. Morris (2013) observes that the life cycle brings out clearly the nature and characteristics of the work in different stages, and can also show the management actions needed to control and direct the project as it evolves through its life cycle. A crucial skill is to move the project at the appropriate pace through its development cycle (ibid.), doing the right thing at the right time. Ultimately, the project life-cycle acts as an important management and governance tool focusing on the allocation of resources, the integration of activities, the support of timely decision making, the reduction of risk and the provision of control mechanisms (Dalcher, 2002).

Given the relative importance of such decisions, it is hardly surprising that the choice of life cycle, and the mapping of potential alternatives can engender controversy and prove to be an emotive issue in many different settings. The next section revisits such early discourse and the emerging disagreements around the use of life cycles within the software development community, that seems to mirror many current day conversations in the project management world.

What’s in a life cycle: Learning from the software engineering discourse

Many ideas adopted by the project management community, particularly around life cycles, iterative and evolutionary development and delivery, maturity and capability models and agile modes of working originate within the software development, information systems and software engineering arenas. Such concepts and ideas have often been borrowed and reused with very limited consideration of the new context and setting and scant regard for the applicability and implications of importing them across fundamentally different and diverse domains. It is therefore instructive to reflect on some of the conversations and debates related to these concepts, especially when the information is hard to find, lost over time or inaccessible.


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Editor’s note: The PMWJ Advances in Project Management series includes articles by professor Prof Darren Dalcher, the editor of the Routledge series of books on new and emerging concepts in program and project management.  Prof Dalcher is also the editor and author of multiple Routledge books. See Prof Dalcher’s bio at the end of this article.

How to cite this paper: Dalcher, D. (2023). Making sense of life cycle wars: From model to reality, Advances in Project Management Series, PM World Journal, Volume XII, Issue VIII, August. Available online at https://pmworldlibrary.net/wp-content/uploads/2023/08/pmwj132-Aug2023-Dalcher-making-sense-of-life-cycle-wars.pdf

About the Author

Darren Dalcher, PhD

Author, Professor, Series Editor
Director, National Centre for Project Management
Lancaster University Management School, UK


Darren Dalcher, Ph.D., HonFAPM, FRSA, FBCS, CITP, FCMI, SMIEEE, SFHEA, MINCOSE is Professor in Strategic Project Management at Lancaster University, and founder and Director of the National Centre for Project Management (NCPM) in the UK.  He has been named by the Association for Project Management (APM) as one of the top 10 “movers and shapers” in project management and was voted Project Magazine’s “Academic of the Year” for his contribution in “integrating and weaving academic work with practice”. Following industrial and consultancy experience in managing IT projects, Professor Dalcher gained his PhD in Software Engineering from King’s College, University of London.

Professor Dalcher has written over 300 papers and book chapters on project management and software engineering. He is Editor-in-Chief of Journal of Software: Evolution and Process, a leading international software engineering journal. He is the editor of the book series, Advances in Project Management, published by Routledge and of the companion series Fundamentals of Project Management.  Heavily involved in a variety of research projects and subjects, Professor Dalcher has built a reputation as leader and innovator in the areas of practice-based education and reflection in project management. He works with many major industrial and commercial organisations and government bodies.

Darren is an Honorary Fellow of the APM, a Chartered Fellow of the British Computer Society, a Fellow of the Chartered Management Institute, and the Royal Society of Arts, a Senior Member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and a Member of the Project Management Institute (PMI), the British Academy of Management and the International Council on Systems Engineering. He is a Chartered IT Practitioner. He sits on numerous senior research and professional boards, including The PMI Academic Insight Team, the CMI Academic Council and the APM Group Ethics and Standards Governance Board as well as the British Library Management Book of the Year Panel.

He is the Academic Advisor, author and co-Editor of the highly influential 7th edition of the APM Body of Knowledge. His books, all published by Routledge, include Leading the Project Revolution: Reframing the Human Dynamics of Successful Projects (December 2018);  Managing Projects in a World of People, Strategy and Change (August 2018) ; The Evolution of Project Management Practice: From Programmes and Contracts to Benefits and Change (September 2017); Further Advances in Project Management: Guided Exploration in Unfamiliar Landscapes (December 2016); and Advances in Project Management: Narrated Journeys in Uncharted Territory (August 2016). His newest book titled “Rethinking Project Management for a Dynamic and Digital World was published by Routledge in 2022.

Prof Dalcher is also an academic advisor for and a frequent contributor to the PM World Journal. He can be contacted at d.dalcher@lancaster.ac.uk.

To view other works by Prof Darren Dalcher, visit his author showcase in the PM World Library at http://pmworldlibrary.net/authors/darren-dalcher/.