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Distance Teaching with Service Learning and Civic Engagement BETA

A Toolkit from University of Maine at Augusta, and University of Southern Maine

Print Version of the Toolkit: uma.edu/faculty-cedoc

Project Cycle Lesson

Project Cycle: Identify the problem, Analyze possible solutions, Design possible solutions, Implement and test with a partner, Evaluate and deliver solution

The Project Cycle refers to the general pattern that most projects take. There are key points in the evolution of a project that can be categorized and clarified, but the overall project process is more of a network than a straight line. The patterns of project development that seem to carry over from project to project are the tenets of good project design:

  1. Start by clarifying the problem to solve, objective or goal to reach, etc.

  2. Analyze possible solutions

  3. Check the feasibility of any solution you might pursue

  4. Design a solution

  5. Break down the solution into tasks

  6. Distribute those tasks amongst your team or over a period of time

  7. Implement a solution

  8. Test it with the partner or project “owner” to be sure your solution works

  9. Evaluate the implementation and look for any gaps in the design

  10. When you’ve shored up the solution, hand it off to the project “owner”

These can further be distilled to four key phases of project-design:

  1. Initiation Phase

  2. Planning Phase

  3. Implementation (Execution) Phase

  4. Closing Phase [1]

Identify the Problem

This is typically part of the Initiation Phase. It can be difficult to discover the precise problem you are trying to solve, and it will be critical that you are articulate clearly and, if possible, measurably.

The way we communicate problems sometimes focuses on just one part of the issue. A good project designer will take time to listen to the problem and unpack it carefully to uncover the potential sources and contributors to the problem she is trying to solve.

For example, imagine a Community Partner comes to your class to discuss her problem with a meals-on-wheels service she runs. She tells you that they fill the truck up with hot food from the kitchen, but by the time it reaches the community she serves, the food is cold. She suggests you might design a way to keep the food hot. From her view, the problem is related to the technology that keeps the food hot, but that’s not actually the problem. That’s a symptom of the problem.

If you reduce the problem to its root or constituent cause-and-effect pattern, you’ll see the problem in this case is an objective: Get hot food to the community. To arrive at this objective, you have to step back from the perspective or paradigm that the problem is best solved by creating a new technology to heat the food. You can do this by asking a series of “Why?” and “How?” questions. If you focus only on solving the technology issue, you might spin your wheels a bit. But if you focus on getting hot food to the community, your awareness will expand and it will be easier to identify the solution together, with the partner.

Just remember, the partner has the final say. It’s her business, after all. Trust her instincts.

Analyze Possible Solutions

After you’ve clarified the problem and looked at what creates or contributes to the problem, you will be free to examine the different ways you can solve it. This part usually falls in the Initiation Phase, but sometimes you will have to circle back here multiple times while you are in the Planning Phase. Come at it from as many different angles as you can.

In the example of the meals-on-wheels program, look at it from the lens of the cook, the delivery driver, the mechanic, the distributor, the food-source provider, the type of packaging being used to hold the food, the route the driver takes, etc. Looking at it from multiple lens can help you hone the best possible solution. You might consider:

  • Change the way we load the truck

  • Change the way we distribute from the truck (first-in, first-out)

  • Change the route the truck takes

  • Reduce the truck’s load for more fuel efficiency

  • Improve the design of the heating mechanism on the truck

  • Market the program better to help recipients be ready, at their doors for meal delivery time

  • Reconsider the distribution method--what if you rotate cool foods (like sandwiches) with hot foods every other trip? Will this change process-culture?

Any of these could help lead you to a good solution. So, what is a  good solution? It is:

  1. Feasible: it can be produced in the time you have available and it can be sustained by the partner’s resources for the long-haul

  2. Sustainable: the solution won’t dissolve or become obsolete immediately, or it is using reliable methods, processes, tools, technologies and is not dependent on fragile economies of systems

  3. Within your Scope: you can deliver what you are suggesting without too much additional professional development. For instance, you are not promising a heavily-programmed database if you don’t have database-programming skills, but you might promise to correct errors in an existing database if you have basic or moderate programming skills

  4. Articulated: be sure that you both you or your class and instructor and the Community Partner are very clear on the product they will receive at the end of the project cycle. Will it be a manifest? A process document or policy and procedure manual? A report? A new product, like a website or new signage or a new building design?

Design Possible Solutions

Now that you have analyzed the problem and identified a solution or two that might work, it is time to design those solutions. You’ve painted the canvas with broad strokes; now it’s time to identify the details. This part usually falls in the Planning Phase and sometimes in the Implementation Phase. Now it is time to:

  • Identify the work to be done

  • Prepare the schedule of work

  • Estimate costs (both in terms of hours and finances)

  • Identify any threats to the solution (may wish to revisit the analysis process)

  • Solve any threats you can in the design strategy

  • Identify any additional project stakeholders (may meet with Partner to review this)

  • Develop a communication plan

  • Assign tasks appropriate to skills and abilities

Implement and Test with Partner

During Implementation and testing, you and your Partner are developing the content of the solution. In the previous step, you were planning what steps you would each take to see the solution through. In this phase, you are now actually doing the work. This part usually falls in the Implementation Phase.

To use an example, let’s consider designing a website is your project. In the problem phase, you may have examined the existing website and identified the hiccups that people experience when they try to use it. Maybe the search doesn’t return good results when users try to look for the catalogue of services. Maybe the colors are difficult on the eyes (yellow on red is a wonder to behold on a screen, isn’t it)?

After you’ve identified the problems, you set about analyzing what could be done about them feasibly. You realized you didn’t have the time or resources to set about purchasing a high-end web development program with 100 stock images and a fully-functioning database, so you prioritized with the Partner that you would instead fix the top three glaring areas in the design. You would update the search features and tag all the services on the site to make it more easily searched, you’d clean up the color-scheme to make it look more modern, and you’d update three areas of the site’s content with new graphics and text (provided by the Partner).

In the Design Solution phase, you then mapped out each step of that process. In the plan, you identified who would do what and at what time. For example, the content probably has to be created before it can be tagged for appropriate searching, so the Partner agreed to get you new content by the end of the week. In the meantime, you were going to start cleaning up the style sheets to make it more readable and modern while you waited for the content. After the content was delivered, you would set to work updating the search. When all the parts of the plan were complete, your final task would be to deliver it to the Partner for review.

Thus, the implementation Phase is when you take the plan you created in the previous step and actually use it produce your project in a way that is transparent to your instructor and Partner, and if you are working with a team, also with them.

Evaluate and Deliver Solution

In this last phase of project design, your job is to evaluate the solution, reflect on the process, and deliver the solution to the Partner and your instructor. It’s like the virtual ribbon-cutting ceremony for your project completion. This typically falls in the Closing Phase, as you are here to wrap up the project and report on your perception of its successes (and limitations) to the stakeholders.

Evaluating a project allows you, your Community Partner, and your instructor to determine how well your solution met the mark. This is the point when you team to assess how well your solution delivered on the promises you made during the problem-identification phase. Did you deliver what you hoped?

Evaluation also involves reflection. You will need to reflect on your own process toward this project, as well as the contributions of other stakeholders. Don’t be surprised if your instructor also requests reflections and evaluations from the Community Partner. You may do this reflection together, or you may do it separately.

Another role evaluation plays at this point is the “hand off.” That is, you are about to hand off this project to the Community Partner to carry forward. What will the partner need to know? Will the partner need to do something to keep the lights on every Monday? Will the partner need to check on the design at least monthly? What skills will the partner need to have to do this work? Where will the partner find all the pieces of the solution (i.e. is there a website?  Backdoor? A server? Or did you put all the materials in the supply closet at their place of business?)

And finally, it’s time to pass off the solution you designed. Many times, this will be formal. You get to have one last meeting with the Partner (and possibly your Instructor) to present your solution or to officially “pass” the torch. Other times, you will have been so involved with your partner during the process that this final rite of passage occurs informally--through an email or a phone call.


  1. For more information about project management design and the Project Life Cycle Phases, please review Adrienne Watt’s BC Open Textbook, Project Management, 2014. Web. https://opentextbc.ca/projectmanagement/ (chapter 3)


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