Delivering a project in stages

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Every project has a beginning and end. It begins with an idea, such as how to improve communications with donors, and ends with the delivery of a product or service, such as a donor database. Each project follows a number of logical and progressive steps between the concept and delivery. This is called the project lifecycle. Understanding the lifecycle makes it much easier on project managers and teams when trying to deliver a potentially complex and unwieldy project!

In the previous article, we examined one approach to the project lifecycle: the Waterfall Model. The Waterfall Model describes the classic project lifecycle and is used by most novice project managers because it is easy to follow and follows a logical progression from beginning to end. The key disadvantages of the waterfall model are that it is quite inflexible and it often takes quite a long time for the project team to see results.

There are various other approaches or models for the project lifecycle as well. This article focuses on the Staged Delivery Model because it addresses some of the disadvantages identified above.

Introduction to Staged Delivery Model

The Staged Delivery Model breaks the project into smaller, more manageable pieces and focuses on executing short, iterative cycles wherever possible. Instead of delivering the complete project in one fell swoop, the project team identifies smaller components that they can deliver as quickly as possible while still meeting the organization’s basic needs. Once the first piece is delivered and in use, the project team can focus on delivering the next.

Let’s look back at a common example that we have used in these articles - building a house. A homeowner is building a new home that includes a house, a garden, and a garage. Instead of building all of it and moving in, she is going to build the house and start living there. She will then work on the garden and garage as time or money allows because she doesn’t need them to use the property.

Four Phases

There are a number of stages in the Staged Delivery Model:

1. Initiation

The Staged Delivery Model begins with initiation. The project team initiates the project by defining what need the project will address, the high-level deliverables, and an overall budget target. The project manager will also look at the management processes that he or she will use to keep the project on track.

2. Planning

The planning phase focuses on identifying and defining the deliverables that the project team will create. During the initiation phase, the team identified the needs that they would address. In the planning phase, they will identify the deliverables that they will create to meet that need. This is where the staged approach begins. They will prioritize all of the project deliverables and divide them into stages. They will do some of them in the first stage, some of them in the second stage, and so on until all of them have been fully completed.

In the example above, the woman’s home will comprise a house, a garden, and a garage. After getting estimates on each of these, she decides that instead of building them all at once she is going to build them in stages, starting with the house. She can therefore defer detailed planning (i.e. blueprints) for the garage or garden because she isn’t going to build them during the first stage.

3. Staged Execution (Occurs iteratively)

The staged execution phase is similar to the execution phase of the Waterfall Model because it will define and produce key project deliverables. The difference is that it will be repeated for each stage of the project.

The first step of this phase is further refining how the team will create the deliverable. In the previous phase, the project team defined it enough to create a budget, decide what would be delivered first, and so forth. The project team needs to further define the deliverable that they will create in this stage so that they can create it. Once they have defined it clearly and sought the appropriate approvals, they can continue with creating and deploying it. Once deployed, the team would repeat this phase for the next stage of the project until all of the project deliverables have been completed.

This can be quite a complex concept. Let’s look back at the example of building a house to see practically what it may look like.

During the planning phase, the homeowner decided that she wanted a house, a garage, and a garden on her new property. She planned enough of these to decide how big they were, where they would go in relation to one another, and how much they would cost. She decided to break the project into three stages, the first of which is to build the house.

In the first iteration of the staged execution phase, an architect created the blueprints for the house and the contractor built it. The architect did not create blueprints for the garage or garden because they were not being delivered in this stage. Once the first stage was completed and the house was built, she moved onto the property. She was able to begin living there despite not having completed the garage or garden. She will build those in the next stage.

4. Closure

The closure phase focuses on project evaluation, collating the project documentation, and tying up any loose ends. The evaluation is important because it enables you to identify some lessons for the next time. Collating the project documentation is important because the organization retains a history of the project and is better able to manage it on an ongoing basis.

Advantages and disadvantages of the staged delivery approach

Like all project lifecycle models, the Staged Delivery Approach is better suited to some situations than others. You will need to consider whether this approach is right for you or your project.

The approach is beneficial because it provides earlier benefits to the organization. If the organization has a limited budget or needs to deliver quickly, staged delivery allows the project team to provide key deliverables early without having finished the entire project. It is also advantageous because complex projects can be broken into more manageable chunks. On the other hand, a novice project manager may find it difficult planning for a staged delivery project because he or she has to identify how all of the stages fit together and prioritize the deliverables in each. It also does not work as well for projects that will create an event. For example, if your project is to deliver a conference, it would be difficult to have participants come one week for the keynote address and then a few weeks later for the rest of the sessions!


This article presents an overview of one approach for delivering projects: the Staged Delivery Approach. This approach focuses on delivering the project in smaller pieces so that the organization can achieve early benefits while reducing the risk of project failure. On the other hand, it can be difficult to control for the novice project manager. Personally, I like to use this methodology for most of my projects because of the advantages it gains me.

It is a more complex approach, but there are many, many more articles on the Internet about it. Take some time to go through them before deciding whether this approach is right for you and your project. Good luck!

Blair Witzel ( is a member of the Project Management Institute and a consultant with McDonnell Doane + Associates, an information management and technology firm focusing on the not-for-profit and public sectors. His work centres on managing multi-project portfolios and working with organizations to develop project management methodologies to more effectively deliver projects.

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