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What’s Done is Done, Not Just Complete
By Andrea Brockmeier

Last month, I was driving through a major highway construction project when my passenger commented how excited she was because she’d heard that the project was nearing completion and would be finished before month-end. I took a quick gander at the site and responded that I was sure whatever source she’d heard that from must have said the end of year, because this project was clearly far from over.

But sure enough, our newspaper arrived today with the feature story about that highway construction project with a big “Complete” stamped across a picture of the intersection. The text of the article described the project as having been “substantially completed.” Substantially complete?

Sure, the lanes are all open and traffic is moving without the stops we used to have to endure, but I drove through it again a couple of days ago and I can tell you the intersection is a mess. Piles of dirt are everywhere, the landscaping looks forgotten, and there are those blasted orange barrels strewn everywhere on the shoulders of the road and in the ditches.

Substantially completed, indeed! Not to be confused with done.

What does it mean to say that the work is complete or that the project is done? That depends on what was defined, of course, at the beginning. Project definition necessarily includes a definition of done. That is, the picture of project closure needs to be painted at the beginning and agreed upon by all stakeholders.

It’s easy in the frenzied project world most of us live in to remember that closing a project includes a number of things, only one of which is actually completing the work. We are so happy to be finished with the work that we may forget about what else needs to occur to actually consider it done in order to close the project. How many of the things below do you have on your project closure checklist?

  • Review of work completed – Those stakeholders defined in the plan need to review the work that’s been done. Does it meet their expectations?
  • Get signature(s) of approval – Get signatures (again, as defined in the plan) to formally acknowledge the completed work and acceptance of deliverables.

  • Conduct and document lessons learned.

  • Clear up or address any outstanding issues.

  • If working with vendors, close out procurements.

  • Update and file project files and records – Pull the project information, records, lessons learned, together and put them on the project historical records “shelf,” electronic or otherwise.

It’s a checklist you’ve probably seen many times, yet when was the last time you got to the end of a project and just couldn’t figure out how to get it closed…because you weren’t sure if it was? Or, do you have projects in your environment that just never seem to end? Maybe it’s simply difficult to get consensus as to whether we are finished or not?

The question is often asked of sponsors and other key stakeholders, “What is your definition of success?” Another good question to clarify project definition could be “When I come to tell you the project is complete, what will that mean to you?”

The news reporter writing the article about the highway department surely made lots of stakeholders happy with the announcement that the project was COMPLETE. Most people probably don’t care about the landscaping and orange barrels littering the site.

Sure, the traffic moves through the intersection like water moving through the Amazon River, and that’s no small thing. So I’ll buy that it’s substantially complete.

It’s just a good thing the stamp across the picture didn’t read “Done”, because it is certainly far from that.

Andrea Brockmeier is the Client Solutions Director of Project Management at at Watermark Learning, Inc. She began her project management career in the non-profit sector in Dallas where she developed and directed a community program for refugees. After returning to Minnesota, she spent over 10 years managing technical, operational, and financial projects. She also has many years of experience developing and leading technical project teams. Most recently, she has focused on curriculum development and training delivery of project management and influencing skills classes. Andrea holds a number of technical certifications and is certified as a Project Management Professional® by the Project Management Institute. You can read more from Andrea on her blog.

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