A project has to end, one way or another. It may take years to achieve its purpose, but once a project completes its life cycle (or fails to do so), it must be closed, extended, or transitioned. The stage where you formally terminate a project is called project close out, and many successful project managers swear by their project close out checklist
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What is a project?
Formally defined, a project is a unique and temporary undertaking specified by a set of parameters that includes its scope, objectives, component tasks, milestones, quality standards, budget, and schedule.
The terms “temporary” and “schedule” clearly differentiate a project from “normal”, “as usual”, or “ongoing” business operations such as corporate accounting, marketing, or human resources which all tend to run as open-ended functions or units of an organization. In contrast, projects such as house construction, website development, and wedding ceremonies obviously have start and end dates. In many ways, all projects are races against time, where you launch efforts at some point until you reach the finish line.
Much has been said about the hassles of starting a project, with many experts claiming it to be the most difficult part. Starting from scratch and mapping out how to get all the resources you need to achieve a project’s exacting goals can indeed be overwhelming. That is why conducting a successful kickoff meeting can really boost a project’s momentum as well as the stakeholders’ morale at the onset.
But formally closing a project the right way is equally important and requires the same level of attention project managers typically reserve for rolling out and running a new project.
Why you need a closure strategy and a project close out checklist
You finally managed to reach the milestones in your Gantt chart, complete all deliverables, and quality-check the final product. As project manager, you might think it’s time to pat yourself on the back, reward the team for their efforts, and make plans for the next project.
STOP. There’s still much to be done and there’ll be time to celebrate later. Remember, neglecting to execute a closure strategy and to tick off a project close out checklist can, at the best of times, cause you to overlook valuable lessons from the project; or worse, prevent you from tying up loose ends, which can dampen your customers’ satisfaction and dent your rep as project manager.
Crucial Tip: To nurture client trust and/or the confidence of upper management, always view the project from the vantage point of the customer before assessing it as a team insider.
There are many reasons why you should include a formal closure as a critical element in your project management workflow. A properly executed project closeout will help you to:
Complete all necessary paperwork
Business requirements, product specs, approvals, and other documentation constitute a significant chunk of project management, making it a rather daunting career for professionals who cringe at any hint of paperwork. But as the project draws to a close, much of the paperwork that remains will be mostly sign-offs for completed deliverables. A project closeout phase enables you to re-engage stakeholders, customers, and/or upper management executives authorized to a) review the relevant work requirements, b) check whether there are still pending tasks to be done, and c) sign off on completed deliverables. A final approval document establishes consensus and serves as legal proof that you and your team have duly performed your job and that your work is complete.
Keep team members focused
As a project nears completion, many stakeholders will have been freed of pressing tasks and will likely lose focus. Unless these talent resources have been formally released earlier, a project manager should ensure they remain focused, disciplined, and productive across the project lifecycle. A project close out meeting should help gain feedback from team insiders about their experiences and their thoughts on how to improve process. Some team members may also require non-salaried payments (as in the case of third-party contractors or freelancers) and these should be settled promptly to ensure they’ll be more than willing to get on board the next project.
Tie up loose ends
A close out checklist will help you address loopholes such as minor bugs and unfulfilled items on a wishlist through quick workarounds or adept management of expectations. A final review of the project scope and business requirements will help confirm the completeness of the team’s efforts.
Clarify and ease transitions
Use the closeout phase to properly handover the project to its subsequent owner (such as the marketing department for a website, the homeowner for a newly constructed house, or the sales department for an online retail store). For corporate environments, this ensures that the finished project will be owned by the team most qualified to manage it. Project closure will also help release and transition talent resources promptly to their next assignments so that their participation in other projects will not be delayed unnecessarily.
Conform with best practices
Project management is a standards-intensive field and the close out phase constitutes an important part of the practice. Neglecting to perform the necessary steps in this stage — even when you think you have completed all deliverables — sends a signal that you are not adopting best practices. Customers or senior executives who are familiar with the process will a) give you a lower performance score/feedback than you would have otherwise earned had you adhered, and b) likely pass you over for a more standards-compliant team for their next project.
Enhance your project management credentials
Executing an excellent project close out shows that you are a diligent professional from start to finish and customers can rely on your project management experience 100%. Otherwise, failure to perform a satisfactory close out will portray your personal brand, team, and organization in a bad light and may tag you as an incompetent or mediocre practitioner.
Learn from wins and losses
Via a post mortem process, you can revisit the project, identify roadblocks, and determine which solutions, team structure, or workflows performed most efficiently. Regardless of whether the project lived up to, surpassed, or missed expectations, generate value by gathering insights and deriving practical lessons from the project. The next time you encounter a similar project, you’ll have another ace up your sleeve.
A project well done is worth celebrating. But there’s a caveat: celebrating before executing a proper close out process can backfire (what if there were still loose ends in the project that you missed out and the customer suddenly crashed your party to demand you fulfill your side of the bargain?). Otherwise, go ahead. Acknowledge everyone’s contributions, reward exceptional achievements, and seize inspiration for the next project.
Basic project closure steps you can use
Merely submitting deliverables constitutes a bad closure strategy. The close out phase entails several steps and a close out checklist for properly wrapping up all facets of a project.
Here are the key steps for formally closing a project:
- Revisit the project scope, requirements, and final feature checklist. Make sure everything has been met 100%.
- Secure approvals and signatures. Ensure full stakeholder approval or customer satisfaction about your work by getting them to sign off on relevant deliverables. Close all outstanding contracts and agreements with internal partners or third-party vendors.
- Settle payments. Process outstanding invoices, commissions, fees, or bonuses. Build positive relationships by being prompt on payments. Note down variances, cost efficiencies, and other financial information that will help you optimize the budget for the next project.
- Identify and document lessons learned. Conduct a thorough post mortem process. Gather feedback from all stakeholders. Highlight important issues and lessons learned that will help improve the quality, value, workflow, speed of completion, cost-efficiency, and team synergy of the next project.
- Finalize reports. Depending on your industry and organization, finalize all required reports for closing a project. Focus on insight-generating reports that will help improve the delivery of succeeding projects.
- Index/archive project documentation. Archive relevant documents that were used in the project from start to finish, including business requirements, project plans, meeting minutes, financial documents, contracts, agreements, and other materials into your organization’s knowledge base. This will help improve corporate data analytics and provide relevant insight for subsequent projects.
- Release project resources. Free up team members and resources (field equipment, technology tools, software, hardware, etc.) that are scheduled for inclusion in other projects.
- Handover project ownership. Officially transfer management of the completed project to the new owner.
- Conduct a project closeout meeting. Whenever possible, conduct a final project meeting involving all team members, stakeholders, and the new project owners to a) officially transition the project, b) explore issues, lessons, and opportunities, c) acknowledge outstanding efforts, and --
- Celebrate. Letting your team and stakeholders chill and relax within an atmosphere of celebration and camaraderie can help energize and inspire them for the next major project.
End your projects with a promise
A completed project deserves a well-executed close out. That is because formally closing a project leaves everyone with a clear promise: the next project will be as good or better than the last.
When project closing is part of the process, you have the perfect channel for the team to let out a sigh of relief, convey top-notch diligence, reinforce lessons learned, and celebrate success.
Want to improve your project management skills? Learn how to run a project from start to finish with the Project Management for Business Professionals course, or prep for your certification with the PMP Certification Training Course.
This is the sixth article in our six-part How to be a Successful Project Manager series. Want to learn more? Check out the previous chapters in the series here:
Want to close your project out right?
Download the ultimate project close out checklist!