The first thing everyone always says about a project is that it is finite, it always has a start and an end. As the PRINCE2 manual goes on to say “If the project loses this distinctiveness, it loses some of its advantages over purely operational management approaches” . So if it is so key to the sense of being a project, why is it that it is the part of the project so often ignored, under resourced or simply forgotten?

Background

Why is closure so important I hear you ask…. surely by definition all the important delivery stuff is all finished by the end of the project? Well you would certainly hope so, but are you sure? Has the customer accepted all the deliverables (including warranty periods), have the suppliers provided all the required documentation and certification, do all your project team know the project is over, are the finances all settled and paid (including expense claims), have all the good and bad lessons been extracted and passed on, have any other outstanding issues been resolved, the list goes on and on.

Unless we complete our expected process at the end of a project we can’t be sure this is definitely the case and if the team has dispersed, budgets balanced or profit taken on the project it is difficult for the organisation and embarrassing for the project manager to resolve later on.

Common reasons for poor closure

There are many reasons why closing a project is undertaken so poorly by many organisations and project managers including, some of the common ones are:

  • Project success – when a project manager and customer/executive believe the project has gone well the view is sometimes why do we need to review and close out? These projects are prime opportunities to find examples of good practice and work out what went well to share with the rest of the organisation. It is also worth remembering that they may have gone well by luck rather than judgement it is important to know this and put in place corrective action before a PM perhaps becomes over confident. Importantly this is a chance for the PM to bask in some glory, after all they may have been sat in the spotlight instead if it hadn’t gone well.
  • Project failure/embarrassment – frequently in this circumstance, especially when more senior management are also tainted by a poor project, nobody wants to acknowledge the business case hasn’t been met or point the finger just in case it ends up pointing at them. Instead people look to sweep it under the carpet and move on…quickly. For the organisation and for those involved it is difficult but important to look at the project rationally and identify where mistakes occurred and things could be done better in the future. As a PM this may help you by identifying problems in the systems, escalated decision making or lack of support which contributed to the problems you otherwise automatically shoulder as the PM.
  • Weakness of process/inexperience of PM – Sometimes poor process education or system support but frequently associated with new PM’s there can be a lack of realisation of the advantages of a positive close out and if there is apathy from the other parties it just gets ignored. Actually getting some feedback on how you have managed your first few projects is essential to your development.
  • Next project syndrome – It is very common that as a project nears its end the attention of some or all parties shifts to the next project(s), resources erode and quite often even the PM is given a new project to start up at the same time. Clearly paralleling of projects and resources is an important skill but be sure you don’t fail your current project by focussing too much energy on the new one.
  • False economy – many business managers and some PM’s don’t value the advantages of controlled close, thinking it is better to save money/improve margin or steal a lead on the next project. This can sometimes be successful and again breed arrogance but can also be counter productive in the long run. If a problem does occur weeks, months, even years later and the customer acceptance wasn’t crystal clear or the files were left in poor state the impact can be significant in terms of trying to formulate a response.
  • Cultural bonding – On long projects and sometimes on small tough projects which have worked well a strong bond/culture can be formed in the team and there is a reluctance to break this and redeploy to new projects. Instead the team look for extensions and reasons to carry on arguing they are a good team and the work should be continued. Often seen when people announce a Phase 2 to a project there may be elements of this in play. It is important that each new project be looked at in isolation and a strong, viable business case built and appropriate resources identified. If the resource pool is predetermined then relationships, roles and expectations will already be set and this can have obvious mismatches to the ideal. Remember the sequel is very rarely as good as the first movie, for good reason!

Simple steps to improvement

So what can we do as project managers, business managers and team members to improve this situation:

  • Appreciate the problems – having read the section above should help, now you can see why controlled closure might not happen and what some of the impacts might be. Be alert to these, lobby the stakeholders and be prepared to play politic, you may have to give different arguments to each party.
  • Follow the process – Your organisation should have a process/procedure in place for controlled close of a project, if they don’t then the key steps are:
  • Ensure all deliverables are accepted in writing
  • Controlled release of resources from the project
  • Wrap up finances, make sure all payments are made or actual amounts accrued and all income has cleared to your accounts before declaring final budget or profit situation. Common problem here are late expenses, accruals based on estimates which prove to be out or poor customer payment processes
  • Review successes and failures and disseminate
  • Archive the project to enable easy retrieval later if required
  • Plan for it – Include a realistic time and resource in the project plan from the start, also remember that changes to the project are often the main issues at Post Project Review (PRINCE2 CP2/CP3 time) so make sure you allow for this when managing configuration and budgets and include an allowance for this in your variation price and schedule calculations.
  • Make it personal – Make controlled close part of the PM and executive’s personal target/assessment criteria, this will soon focus the mind on controlled close. Don’t take this as a push towards a blame culture, all comments, observations and advice should be appropriate and controlled. If Business management believe any formal action is necessary it should be undertaken on a one to one basis outside of the project process.
  • Make it easy to archive the project – Use an electronic system which packs down (and easily restores a project) making it easy to do means people are more likely to do it. Make sure that any hard copy project files and diaries are also kept and the two types of archives refer to each other. Set a date for end of archive or review.

Nothing is of course this straight forward and there are always anomalies and contingent situations that require a different approach, here are some of the things you might like to consider:

Can’t test the business case yet, or the customer has a warranty period or retention – moth ball the project, keep a skeleton staff but retain responsibilities, review periods and comms responsibilities, hold final review meeting then close. Or close the project and then agree a post closure review, whichever path it is important to choose one as just leaving the project as is until required again will cost more, take more time and result in poorer decision making.

For a particularly good project, especially one that has clearly pushed the bounds of what is normal in the organisation consider running a show and tell where the team tell their peers what they did, what worked and what didn’t . This will usually give the project team a positive feeling (unless they are all shy retiring types) and will ensure the lessons are better absorbed by their colleagues.