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A Complete Guide to Closing Projects
By Michael L Young

Forget seagull management or the never-ending story – your project needs closure!

Organizations characterized by a lot of project activity often finish them as quickly as possible, wash their hands of them and rush headlong into the next job at hand. Some are just left to eventually fade out. Team members gradually disappear, move onto the next shiny, new assignment or just keep hanging around finishing stuff off. In both cases it’s unlikely they adopt valuable, formal ‘close out’ processes.

Why ‘Close’?

By definition, a project has a start and an end. So it’s vital that each of those key milestones is properly planned and managed to achieve optimum success. With the project management industry growing rapidly and on a steep learning curve, it’s more important than ever to pay attention to how assignments end. Many organizations don’t manage closures well. It’s usually because they don’t include the process in the initial plan.

Key Elements of Project Closure

There are a number of key elements to project closure. The level of detail and sophistication of each depend on the organization’s size and the assignment’s complexity.

The key actions involved in close-out are:

  • Identify lessons learned
  • Review and document
  • Archive records
  • Recognize outstanding achievement
  • Disburse resources

Identifying Lessons Learned

The end of an assignment is a great time to sit back and reflect on achievements and identify and prepare to share what’s been learned.

This is done in a ‘lessons learned session’. This can be an informal gathering of key project people or a large, formal meeting including: the project team, stakeholders (internal and external) executive management, supervisors and operations staff.

For optimum results, the ‘lessons learned session’ should adopt an aura of constructive feedback. The group should deliberate on suggestions for improvement and new ideas that were very successful on the mission. Focus on the top 5 or 10 issues. The outcome should be recommendations, procedures and processes that can be adapted to improve quality of future assignments. These reviews can offer practical learning opportunities for everyone involved. Such a session can facilitate official but also emotional closure of a project. It also provides a forum for public recognition of outstanding contribution.

Reviewing and Documenting

There are several elements of documentation that should be covered: a Project Closure Report, Post Implementation Review Report and data archiving.
Success (in terms of outcomes) is defined at the early stages of planning but there are other factors that need to be measured, including:

  • Were the initial success factors achieved?
  • Do stakeholders view the outcomes in a positive light?
  • Was the project well-managed?
  • Did team members work well together?
  • Did the team understand roles and progress at all points?

When to use a Project Closure Report

A Project Closure Report is a document which formalizes the closure of the project. It is usually prepared by the Project Manager and presented to the client or project sponsor for sign-off.

Ideally the PM should seek input from the entire project team, customers or end-users, and other stakeholders. The Project Closure Report enables the PM to characterize the clients view of the project that will lives on after completion.

What’s in a Project Closure Report?

The Project Closure Report provides confirmation that the project has met success criteria and requests sign-off from the sponsor to close the project. A Project Closure Report includes:

  • A formal list of completion criteria
  • Confirmation that each criterion has been met
  • A list of outstanding business activities, risks and issues
  • A set of closure actions (eg: hand over deliverables / documentation, terminate suppliers, release resources)
  • A formal project closure request.

In all projects there are some tasks that can’t be completed. To effectively manage closure it’s crucial to identify to whom outstanding issues are to be handed over. After activities have been completed, a Post Implementation Review is undertaken to measure success of the project and record lessons learned for future projects.

What is a Post Implementation Review Report?

A Post Implementation Review Report documents the history of a project. It provides a record of the planned and actual budget and schedule. It should contain recommendations for other projects of similar size and scope. The report should document the following analyses:

  • Project organization including staffing and skills
  • Schedule effectiveness
  • Successful risk assessment and mitigation techniques
  • Processes used for change control, and quality management
  • Techniques used for project communication
  • Techniques for handling customer expectations
  • Success factors and how they were met
  • Financial data – planned and actual
  • Lessons Learned (from lessons learned session)
  • Recommendations to future project managers

Of particular importance for learning organizations are documenting lessons learned and risk management strategies. Lessons learned should be documented either as new procedures or as comments on the project achievement. Problems encountered by the project team should be presented candidly. Accepting responsibility and ownership for problems is critical to developing useful advice for future activity.

On completion of the project, all project risks can be closed, as there should no longer be any risks that may impact the project outcome. Risks should be formally closed by the project steering committee, project board or sponsor.

Collecting and Archiving Project Data

Following delivery of the Post Implementation Review Report, the project database is archived. Building a repository of past projects serves as both a reference source and as a training tool for project managers. Project archives can be used when estimating projects and in developing metrics on probable productivity of future teams.

Typically, the following project data is archived:

  1. Post Implementation Review Report
  2. Project Plan Project
  3. Management Control Documents:
    1. Correspondence
    2. Relevant meeting notes
    3. Status reports
    4. Contract files
  4. Technical documents

Prepare an electronic file with all the materials used to plan, execute and evaluate the project. Maybe burn a CD to keep on file for future reference.

Recognizing Achievement

There is general agreement among management experts that rewarding staff achievement is an effective management tool – setting the stage for future success. It is important to recognize teams and individuals that have met the goals or exceeded expectations.

A ‘wrap-up’ party is a nice, informal way to do this – before team members start to move on. Another option is to provide T-shirts, mugs or other items that commemorate the project. Other ways to recognize achievement are to promote project successes to key stakeholders or to write articles in industry periodicals about the project’s experience and lessons learned . In addition to recognizing staff – chronicling projects also helps to contribute to the broader industry body of knowledge.

Disbursing Resources

There are small tasks that must be completed to physically close the project. These might include: paying everybody, completing any outstanding paperwork, filing required reports, briefing anyone who needs to be briefed, tossing out the rubbish and cleaning up the factory, warehouse or workspace.

As part of signing off, the project manager may hold discussions with project staff about what they have learnt and career opportunities that this offers. Generally, once all t’s are crossed and i’s dotted, the slate should be clear and there should not be enduring remains from old projects interfering with future activities.

Leaving Satisfied, Educated and Motivated

Those who do a great job finishing projects leave fellow team members motivated towards getting involved and doing great things on future projects. A well concluded project will leave sufficient, documentation associated with it that anyone who wants to learn from, duplicate or build on the results in the future is able to do so without having to figure it out from scratch.

Michael Young is Principal Consultant with ‘Transformed’ – Project Management Unleashed.

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