Planning for Project Closure: Finding Ways to End on a High Note

By definition, projects are short term initiatives, having a defined beginning and end, designed to fill a specific purpose. Projects differ from long term operations in that they are temporary by design (although this status does nothing to diminish their value).

Since projects are temporary, they must come to an end, one way or another. While some projects may reach an untimely end through cancellation, most projects reach their planned conclusion. In fact, projects are initiated to produce a specific unique outcome, and when that outcome is delivered, the project comes to an end. This "end" is a process in and of itself, formally referred to as project closure. As a key part of the project lifecycle, closure practices are designed to fill the following needs:

  • To transition project deliverables to their long term operational status.
  • To release the project team for other projects or to return to operational positions.
  • To complete any remaining obligations and conduct formal practices for project review.
  • To recognize the work and efforts of the project team and commitment of the project stakeholders.
  • To establish a record of project results to build on for the future.

Finding the “High Notes” for Project Closure

Is it always possible to end on projects a "high note"? It all depends on how you define high note. Projects "end" for various reasons and in various degrees of "success". We all hope and work for the timely closing.... on budget, having delivered all planned outcomes as needed and promised. In these cases, the "high note" is self evident (i.e. we did it!). But some projects end prematurely, and some projects end late, over budget, and without having achieved all planned outcomes. Where are the high notes then?

Whether a project ends as a total success, partial success, complete failure, cancelled initiative, or some other designation, the project must still be "closed" in order to formally terminate the work effort. No matter how the project ends, close-out deliverables and events should always take advantage of the available "high notes" in context of the closing circumstances. Depending on closing status, these "high notes" can consist of accomplishments (recognizing what went right) and/or teachable moments* (recognizing what went wrong and how to learn from it). No matter how a project goes, there will likely always be accomplishments to celebrate (ranging from deliverables to teamwork) and always something to learn. The key is to find all the "high notes" and used them to close-out the project with the best impression and outlook for the future.

Teachable Moments at Project Closings: When projects do not end as anticipated, high notes can still be found in "above and beyond" effort, dedication to quality, teamwork, willingness to take risk, and the need to overcome difficult obstacles. See: Graceful Exits from Troubled Projects

Key Steps for Project Closure Planning

Closure steps and requirements should be planned before project work begins as part of the governance phase of the project management process. These are the primary questions to be considered….

Have acceptance criteria been properly defined and approved?

Acceptance criteria define the form and function of specific project deliverables, establishing end-user expectations and requirements, and forming the basis by which project deliverables are accepted or rejected. Once acceptance criteria are approved, they form a "contract" under which the project is performed, setting expectations and creating consensus. As such, acceptance criteria should not be changed once a project is underway unless a formal change process is applied. Without acceptance criteria, meaningful "closure" cannot be obtained, as there may be no specific measurement for completion. This exposes the team to the risk of not achieving acceptable results (no matter what is actually achieved).  (Also Read: Setting Project Success Criteria)

What are the expected needs for operational and ownership transition?

Depending on the type of project at hand, transition needs will vary. As closure activities are planned, specific transition/turnover requirements must be carefully considered (weighing timing, complexity, value and risk). Typically, transition/turnover activities are dependent upon the status of the required project deliverables. When a deliverable is under development, the project team is in control. Once a deliverable is ready for production, ownership must be transitioned to operational ownership so that the deliverable can be used and maintained. Turnover planning typically involves end-user training, operations training and the preparation of procedural and technical documentation.

What are the closure related resource requirements?

  • What types of resources will be required for project closure (considering timing, technical requirements, management obligations, execution tasks, skills and responsibilities)?
  • Who will be involved in the closure process (including management and end-users)?
  • As the project draws to a close, how will project team members be reassigned to other projects?
  • Who will be involved in the post project review process (to analyze project results and performance)?

What is the project "mood" and perception prior to closing?

Closure needs and strategies will vary based on the status of the project as it comes to an end. Closure takes on a very different tone when the project is not viewed as a "success" or if the project has come to an untimely, unexpected end. In these cases, transition needs may change, and there may be little appetite for a celebratory "recognition" event to mark the projects end. That does not mean you can simply walk away, abandoning the project at the side of the road. In these cases, planned closure events (meetings) can be used to actively review what went right, what went wrong, and to learn from the difference.

Wrap Projects Up with a Close-out Event

Much like the project kickoff, the project "closeout" is part "meeting" and part public relations event. When planning closeouts, you must consider the timing, logistical requirements, costs, purpose, formality, (business, celebration or both?)attendees, and expected results. Your intended goal is to end your project on all the available "high notes", with positive perceptions intact, ready for the next project to build on every accomplishment and learn from every lesson.

Closeout To-Do Checklist List:
  • Identify closeout purpose and "high notes" as appropriate to closing status.
  • Schedule the closeout event.
  • Make all appropriate arrangements to meet logistical requirements.
  • Extend invitations to all attendees.
  • Prepare required materials and distribute as needed in advance of the event.
  • Practice, practice, practice (your presentation).
  • Conduct the closeout.

More on this subject:  Performing the Post Meeting Performance Assessment.  Also see our meeting planning infographic Recipe for Meeting Agenda Productivity.

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