What are the main stages of the EU project lifecycle?

This article delves into the four crucial stages of an EU project lifecycle, offering expert guidance on navigating and effectively overcoming the challenges inherent to each phase.

The European Union (EU) allocates funding to a wide range of projects that aim to promote collaboration, innovation, and development across its member states. These projects play a crucial role in achieving the EU’s objectives in various fields such as research, culture, sustainability, and more. But what exactly does it take to transform an initial idea into a fully funded, active EU project? A clear understanding of the EU project lifecycle is vital for potential applicants and stakeholders to navigate through each phase successfully.

Project management within EU projects necessitates a blend of technical, organisational, and interpersonal competencies. Project managers must excel in leading diverse teams, mitigating risks, adapting to changes, and ensuring the timely and efficient delivery of the project, all while staying within the allocated resources and timeline at each stage of the project lifecycle.

1. The project preparation stage

Every grand initiative begins with an idea. Within the context of EU projects, this idea is shaped and refined during the project preparation stage. This involves the following key activities:

  • Call identification: The journey begins with identifying the right call or calls for proposals that align with your project idea. These calls provide comprehensive details about the types of projects the EU is interested in funding. It is important to select the call that best matches your project idea.
  • Partnership building: Given the collaborative nature of many EU projects, forming a consortium with the right partners is a crucial step. It is essential to assemble a diverse team that brings a variety of expertise and resources to the table.
  • Conceptualisation: Once your team is in place, the next step is to develop a concept note. This document outlines the core aspects of your project, including its objectives, expected outcomes, and a preliminary plan.
  • Proposal development: Using the concept note as a base, the consortium crafts a detailed project proposal. This document delves into the methodologies, timelines, deliverables, and other critical details of the project. On average, the preparation stage can last from 6 to 12 months.

The main challenges during EU project preparation stage

Addressing these challenges requires careful planning, collaboration among partners, understanding the requirements thoroughly, choosing the right communication tools, and starting the preparation process well in advance of the deadline.

Consortium coordination:

  • Establishing effective communication channels and platforms.
  • Handling time zone differences, cultural diversity, and organisational variances.
  • Synchronising the varied expertise, resources, and priorities of consortium members.
  • Facilitating consistent collaboration and communication.
  • Ensuring the timely collection of necessary inputs.
  • Addressing conflicting viewpoints and achieving consensus on the project's concept, schedule, and budget.

Expert tip: Utilise EMDESK’s project and resource planning tools for seamless consortium coordination. Start with a Gantt chart, define major deliverables, and use various overview functions to showcase the quality of your work plan and resources.

Collaborative budgeting and proposal writing:

  • Designing a detailed project work breakdown.
  • Defining together deliverables and milestones.
  • Creating a precise and realistic budget by conducting a comprehensive cost analysis to accurately estimate project expenses.
  • Ensuring compliance with the EU’s financial rules and regulations.
  • Identifying and justifying the financial contributions and resources of each consortium partner.
  • Ensuring that the proposal aligns perfectly with the objectives and priorities of the specific call.

Expert tip: Use EMDESK’s online document editor for collaborative writing with pre-built templates and real-time data embedding from your project planning, ensuring consistency and accuracy in your proposal. Easily invite people to start collaborating and join the work on the proposal as your consortium grows.

Meeting submission deadlines:

  • Monitoring the proposal submission deadline and ensuring that all required documents are completed in a timely manner.
  • Coordinating with consortium partners to gather and compile the necessary information for submission.

Expert tip: A dedicated software solution like EMDESK provides comprehensive collaboration tools that enable EU project managers to effortlessly gather and compile necessary information from all consortium partners in real-time, ensuring that no detail is overlooked. Its intuitive interface and communication features facilitate seamless coordination and document sharing, allowing teams to work together efficiently and meet proposal submission standards well before the submission deadline.

2. The project submission stage

With your proposal finalised, the next step is to submit it formally for evaluation. All proposals are submitted electronically via the EU Funding and Tenders Portal. For Horizon Europe, it’s project coordinators who are responsible for the online submission. This process demands meticulous attention to detail:

  • Online submission: Utilise the Online Submission Service for a standardised submission process.
  • Uploading documents: Ensure all required forms, templates, and a detailed budget are uploaded correctly.

The main challenges during EU project submission stage

Overcoming these challenges requires a combination of early preparation, understanding the specific requirements of the call, and seeking advice or help if needed.

Complex submission systems:

  • Navigating the complex electronic submission systems such as the Funding & Tenders Portal, ensuring all required sections are correctly filled out.

Expert tip: Seek out guides, tutorials, and double-check everything to navigate these platforms successfully.

Detailed documentation:

  • Providing extensive documentation, including detailed descriptions of activities, work packages, and budgets.
  • Verifying the accuracy and completeness of all required documents.

Expert tip: Leverage EMDESK’s document repository to streamline this process. With a centralised and secure space to store, organize, and access all necessary data, no crucial document is misplaced or overlooked. Consortium partners are able to easily edit, contribute, and review documents in real-time, significantly enhancing the efficiency and accuracy of the proposal preparation and submission process.

3. The project evaluation stage

The evaluation stage of an EU project is a critical phase where proposals are assessed for their viability, relevance, and potential impact. Once the proposal is in, it undergoes rigorous scrutiny to ensure it aligns with the EU’s goals and offers value:

  • Evaluation committee: The primary responsibility for assessing the proposal lies with the Evaluation Committee. This committee consists of experts who review the proposal in strict confidence, ensuring that the selection process is transparent and fair.
  • External expertise: Depending on the specific program under which the proposal has been submitted, external experts might be brought in. Their role is to provide an unbiased assessment of the proposal's quality, viability, and potential impact.
  • Outcome of the evaluation: The results are communicated via the Funding & Tenders portal, with the evaluation period potentially lasting up to five months. The success rate can vary significantly from one call to the other.

The main challenges during EU project evaluation stage

While evaluators face challenges in ensuring a fair and thorough assessment, applicants also confront several hurdles during this stage.

High competition:

  • Given the limited funds and the high number of applications, many good-quality projects might not get funded.

Expert tip: Focus on aligning your proposal closely with the call requirements and evaluation criteria.

Feedback comprehension:

  • Feedback on rejected proposals may sometimes seem vague or not detailed enough to understand the exact shortcomings.

Expert tip: Remember that there is a possibility to request a re-evaluation if you believe an error has occurred.

4. The project implementation stage

Receiving the green light on the proposal is just the beginning. The real work begins now:

  • Preparation and signature of the Grant Agreement: The consortium and mainly the coordinator is preparing with the EC the Grant Agreement through the Funding & Tenders portal. This period can last up to 3 months. Afterwards, all beneficiaries are invited to sign the Grant Agreement.
  • Kick-off: With the funding secured, the consortium kick-starts the project. This often begins with a formal initiation meeting to align all members and set the project into motion. It is the first day where the consortium officially starts to work on the project and report costs. It is usually the first day of the month following the signature of the Grant Agreement.
  • Execution: The project, as outlined in the proposal, is now executed. This involves adhering to planned methodologies, achieving set milestones, and meeting deadlines.
  • Ongoing monitoring and reporting: The project execution can last between 12-60 months on average. Throughout the project's duration, there's continuous monitoring to ensure it's on track. Regular reports are submitted to the concerned EU bodies, detailing progress, challenges, and any deviations from the original plan. For Horizon Europe projects, if the beneficiary received more than 430.000€ of grant, it will have to pass through a CFS audit.
  • Final reporting: 60 days after the last day of the project, the consortium has to submit through the Funding & Tenders portal all pending deliverables, financial statements, and certificates of CFS audits for Horizon Europe projects if requested.

The main challenges during EU project implementation stage

The project implementation stage of an EU-funded project is arguably the most critical phase, as it's when the project's activities are executed and its objectives are pursued. Both project partners and beneficiaries face a range of challenges during this stage.

Understanding and anticipating these challenges can better equip project teams to navigate the complexities of implementing EU projects. Regular monitoring, open communication, and proactive problem-solving are essential to overcome these hurdles and ensure successful project implementation.

Consortium communication and collaboration:

  • Establishing effective project management tools, systems, and processes.
  • Defining clear governance structures, decision-making processes, and communication channels within the consortium.
  • Ensuring regular information and knowledge exchange, as well as efficient coordination and decision-making throughout the project.
  • Facilitating virtual or physical meetings, workshops, and progress reviews.
  • Coordinating activities and tasks among project partners, ensuring that everyone is aligned and contributing as required.

Expert tip: Leverage EMDESK’s all-in-one platform as it functions as a centralised communication and information hub for your project. By providing real-time communication tools such as chat, messaging, and integrated video conferencing, it ensures that team members, regardless of their geographical locations, stay connected and engaged. Its robust notification system, encompassing both email alerts and in-app notifications, keeps the consortium members well-informed of updates, tasks, and deadlines, ensuring that nothing slips through the cracks.

Timeline and achieving milestones:

  • Staying on track with the project timeline.
  • Addressing any issues or challenges that arise promptly and implementing solutions to keep the project on course.
  • Ensuring feasible milestones and meeting deliverable deadlines in a timely and quality manner.
  • Monitoring progress against milestones and taking corrective actions to address delays or deviations.
  • Keeping an overview of the entire project progress, ensuring activities are on schedule and resources are being efficiently utilized.

Expert tip: Consider using EMDESK Gantt chart feature which provides a visual representation of the project's schedule, allowing managers to easily track progress and identify any potential delays or issues in real-time. Additionally, the EMDESK Workplan section offers an extensive project management tool, enabling the setting of clear objectives, assigning tasks to team members, and monitoring the status of each deliverable and milestone. This centralisation of project data ensures that all consortium members have access to up-to-date information.

Budget management:

  • Monitoring and managing the budget throughout the project's lifecycle, ensuring alignment of project expenses with the allocated budget.
  • Identifying and assessing potential risks and uncertainties that may impact project objectives, timeline, and budget.
  • Adhering to all administrative and financial rules, as well as the eligibility criteria for expenses set by the European Commission.
  • Optimising resource and funds utilisation, balancing deadlines and budget constraints.
  • Handling unexpected costs or the need to reallocate funds between different budget lines.

Expert tip: With EMDESK managers are empowered to input, track, and adjust financial details in real time, maintaining a strict adherence to the allocated budget. It provides effective resource control, allowing managers to allocate and re-allocate resources effectively and preventing resource-related bottlenecks. This functionality ensures that all expenses are transparent and accounted for, providing a clear overview of the financial state of the project at any given moment. Beyond tracking, EMDESK delivers powerful financial analytics, giving managers access to in-depth insights and trends in spending, aiding in accurate forecasting, and highlighting opportunities for cost optimisation.

Continuous monitoring:

  • Implementing continuous monitoring of costs and person-days (PDs) spent by each partner at clearly defined intervals in between official periodic reporting.
  • Tracking partners’ time and expenses monthly, or at most every three to four months, to determine whether partners’ costs and PDs are in alignment with the planned budget
  • Ongoing cost and effort tracking, which are crucial for early identification of misallocated or excessive spending allowing both coordinators and partners to make timely adjustments.
  • Avoiding exclusive reliance on official reporting intervals (12 or 18 months) to prevent delayed responses to financial discrepancies.

Expert tip: Personnel cost expenditure must correspond with the planned effort and progress of the project. A critical metric is the actual average personnel cost rate of each partner, which should align closely with the anticipated average rate. This ensures that the personnel budget is utilised consistently over time. Significant discrepancies between personnel costs and person-months (PMs) expended may raise concerns from the EU project officer, potentially leading to the rejection of costs. Thus, continual oversight is essential and can be efficiently conducted using EMDESK. The same principle applies to the ongoing monitoring of work package (WP) progress, tasks, deliverables, and milestones — it should not be deferred until the end of a reporting period.

Handling reporting compliance:

  • Ensuring consistent, meticulous tracking of effort and expenses.
  • Providing precise, comprehensive, and timely reporting of project progress, achievements, and financial information.
  • Collecting relevant updates and accurate documentation from partners to demonstrate the project's impact and outcomes.
  • Complying with the EU’s reporting requirements and formats, ensuring that all financial transactions are transparent, eligible, and fully documented.
  • Preparing for project audits and reviews by the funding agency.

Expert tip: EMDESK streamlines the reporting process, providing pre-defined templates and tools that comply with EU reporting standards, ensuring accuracy and timeliness in submissions. With features that support precise tracking of resources and collaboration, EMDESK makes it easy for project managers to gather necessary data from various partners, maintaining consistency and reducing the risk of errors. Its advanced analytics and reporting tools provide in-depth insights and customisable reports on financial performance and resource utilisation. By maintaining a comprehensive and transparent record of all project activities and expenses, EMDESK enhances accountability and facilitates a smooth audit process, ensuring that all required information is readily available and in accordance with EU guidelines.

In conclusion, the lifecycle of an EU project, from its conception to execution, is a testament to the meticulous planning and collaboration that goes into ensuring that the initiatives align with the broader goals of the European Union. For potential applicants, understanding this lifecycle not only aids in effective participation but also sets the stage for impactful contributions to the European community.

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