Overlooked, Underrated, Misunderstood—And Critical For Project Success
The close-out phase of a well-run project
“What was closure…? Not an end as everyone imagined, but a beginning.” — Celeste Chaney
The TL;DR Key Takeaways:
The Closeout Phase focuses on completing a project in a systematic, documented, efficient, and professional manner.
Closing a project correctly minimizes any post-project liabilities, helps ensure key stakeholder satisfaction, improves the perception of the project to the outside world, and aids future projects that you and your organization may undertake.
Project closure typically includes three key categories of effort: (1) the completion and successful delivery of the full product Scope to the Stakeholder(s), a/k/a “delivering the deliverables”; (2) the closure of all open contracts, agreements, project plans & obligations, and the archiving of all relevant project information, a/k/a “closing the opens”; and (3) the process of gathering lessons learned, and then releasing project team members, a/k/a “shutting down the project.”
What is the Closeout Phase?
The Closeout Phase of a Project is, unsurprisingly, exactly what it sounds like. As work is performed and the deliverable created, you will begin to approach the end of your project. The Closeout Phase is when you complete the remainder of that work, hand over the product scope, ensure all open responsibilities, obligations, contracts, and other project work are finished, and, ultimately, release the project team and return all other resources and unspent monies. Said more succinctly, the Closeout Phase is when the work scope is completed and the team disbanded.
Less obvious, but just as important, the Closeout Phase is when you set your next project up for success—or failure. Far too many project managers overlook or short-change this phase. In their minds, they’re already looking past the current project and moving onto the next big thing down the road. But this is a mistake.
Taking the time to properly close a project is vital to both the success of the current project, but also that of any future projects you and your organization undertake. Closing a project correctly presents powerful opportunities to open new project doors, learn valuable lessons that can be applied to those future projects, and make your next project even more successful than the current one.
New project managers often question why so much attention should be focused on the Closeout Phase. Doesn’t one just finish the work, hand over the deliverable, and let everyone go? Isn’t this a lot of work for a little payoff? The short answer is: no! The longer answer is multifold.
Why Is The Closeout Phase So Important?
First, how your project ends can have a significant impact on how the project is viewed by your stakeholders. And this can have a large impact on whether the project is deemed a success or not. Stakeholder perceptions matter. Project closure is when we cast those perceptions in stone—for better or worse. It’s your last chance to ensure the key stakeholders are left satisfied with the project and that their expectations were met. Remember, subjective measures of success are just as important as the objective ones.
Further, if you don’t formally and completely close out your interactions with the key stakeholders, you can actually leave your organization at risk. Clients and end-users can complain that they weren’t fully consulted or communicated with, that some items weren’t completed, or that work wasn’t finished to their satisfaction. At best, you’ll have unhappy clients. At worst, you can end up facing legal action.
Failing to close a project fully and correctly also prevents you from reaping the rewards and benefits of team members’ knowledge and lessons for future projects. Information on what practices should be kept, improved upon, added, or discontinued in the future can be captured during closeout and incorporated in those future projects. These lessons are valuable not only to your organization, but also to you personally when you begin your next project.
Further, valuable team members that you would like to retain within your organization might leave for greener pastures if the project isn’t closed out correctly; this is especially dire if they leave disgruntled or dissatisfied with you and your closeout methods. Taking a modest amount of time to communicate with them, interview them, write letters of recommendation, celebrate success, and find and then properly release them onto their next work assignments can reap considerable benefits down the road for you and your institution.
And finally, an improperly run Closeout Phase can leave you and your management team with a credibility problem that can negatively impact your future career prospects. Time spent planning and executing a full and complete project closeout can greatly improve both the objective and subjective impressions about your project, the organization, and you.
How To (Correctly) Closeout A Project:
Every project is unique, so the specifics can and will vary greatly, but the overall phase elements and actions will usually follow a common process. More specifically, there are three main categories of common work that must be performed during the closeout of a project:
Deliver the Deliverable. This is the conclusion of the primary goal of the project: i.e., completing the product scope that meets all of its quality requirements, and delivering it to the end-user, client, or other key stakeholders on time and on budget. Regardless of project size, this must be done in an official and systematic way to ensure everyone agrees and acknowledges the final state of the deliverable. Validation testing, followed by obtaining written confirmation from both the internal team and external stakeholders that the project objectives have been met, is the goal of “delivering the deliverable.”
Close the Opens. The second key thing we have to do during project closeout is wrap up all contractual obligations, leases, external agreements, internal project plans, and other commitments. We also wrap-up and archive all relevant project information, including important documents and communications. And of course, we close and return all non-labor resources and unspent monies we have left over.
Shut Down the Project. The third and final aspect of project closure involves gathering and documenting key lessons learned from the team (and stakeholders if applicable). Formal and informal celebrations of success with both your team and key stakeholders are also important during this period. And finally, you must professionally, systematically, and gracefully release the project team, including, when appropriate, the writing of personal notes of thanks & letters of recommendations, as well as providing assistance helping these key people to secure their next jobs and work assignments.
The Bottom Line:
Properly closing a project isn’t hard, but it takes time, planning, and effort. Unfortunately, this critical phase is often overlooked or given little attention. If you’re a professional project manager, then closing a project systematically and completely should be your default approach. You put a lot of time, thought, and effort into the initiation, planning, and execution phases of a project; just as much focus should also be applied to the closeout. Failing to do so is a serious error; properly closing a project is just as important as those earlier phases, and, as the Project Manager, it’s your responsibility to ensure this takes place correctly and completely.