For most tech leaders, projects are the centerpiece of how we demonstrate and execute our value. Projects usually represent the realization of our tech strategy or perhaps serve as enablers to a broader business or transformational strategy. These projects also provide a chance to interact with and implement interesting new technologies or outside expertise in the form of consultants, advisors, and technical experts.
Effective project management is table stakes for most tech organizations, yet few do an adequate job of ending their projects well. At too many organizations, projects end like a night out at a dance club, where the music stops, the house lights turn on, and participants make a beeline for the exit without a second glance.
This phenomenon is especially acute with projects that were unsuccessful or challenging. Key individuals flee the project as if mere association with it will harm their reputations or career prospects.
Coming to the end of a project should be approached with the same diligence as starting it. Not only does ending a project effectively allow for an orderly transition to the next activity, but it also captures hard-won lessons and makes the organization more effective in the long run.
Too often, we forget that projects produce 2 significant outcomes. The first is obvious, and that’s the project’s stated objective. The second, more subtle outcome is the skills, learnings, and development that occur during the project. In cases where the project doesn’t meet its stated objective, there is still significant value to be achieved in this area for teams that are willing to capture it.
Building your Project Closure Checklist
Every organization that’s done more than a few complex projects likely has a preferred methodology and toolkit for running their projects. There are probably dozens of tasks related to starting a new project, from developing charters to holding kickoff meetings. However, the list of project closure activities is comparatively scant, if it exists at all.
While it can seem counterintuitive, the best time to start considering how to end a particular project effectively is at the very beginning. Turn one of your kickoff activities into a session to plan out how you’ll complete the project. Ask your team questions like the following:
What do we hope to learn from this project, and how can we share it with the broader organization?
- How will we recognize individuals’ performance on the project and ensure that information is captured and shared with their leadership?
- How will we assess the implementation methodology used for the project and share what we learned?
- Who will be responsible for knowledge transfer from consulting or technology partners?
- Questions like these should prompt ongoing discussions and ultimately result in an element of your plan dedicated to closing the project effectively.
Learning from Projects
Perhaps the most significant benefit of ending a project effectively is capturing what your teams learned during the project. Most projects have some elements that are outside “business as usual,” whether they are new technologies, methodologies, or outside vendors. Interacting with these elements may have produced outsize returns or created a new capability within your teams.
The challenge is that much of this knowledge exists in the brains of those who used the new techniques during the project rather than across the broader organization. There will undoubtedly be some future knowledge sharing as these individuals interact with colleagues on other projects, but taking the time to plan how to share this knowledge more explicitly will pay dividends in the long run.
Consider rotating in new team members as the project winds down. This will provide some “fresh hands” to help with project closure activities and allow experienced staff to share what they’ve learned while still applying these new techniques. This turns your nearly-completed project into a teaching tool, immediately allowing you to share new skills in an accelerated fashion.
Plan for some time to formally analyze what went well and what could be improved. Most militaries perform an after-action report to determine what can be gleaned from an effort regardless of its success or failure. Apply a similar practice to your projects to improve the organization in the future rather than apportion accolades or blame.
Finding Success in Failure
Perhaps the most challenging projects to end well are those that fail to deliver their stated objective. No one likes to be involved with a failed effort, and the tendency is to quickly and quietly shut down a failed project and never speak of it again.
This tendency to run from failure creates a double loss for the organization by failing to capture the valuable learnings from the project. Even if the program’s stated objective hasn’t been reached, your organization likely learned new tools and techniques, or perhaps even some valuable and expensive lessons on the viability of a particular technology or vendor relationship.
It may be helpful to bring in individuals from outside the project team or even outside the organization to analyze the project. Seek to find “teachable moments” that can be applied to future projects, rather than trying to allocate blame or rehash past decisions that can’t be reversed or redone. Not only will this effort yield valuable information that will benefit future projects, but it also allows the project team and the broader organization to acknowledge that the project didn’t go according to plan and to formally close the effort rather than leaving it lurking.
Whether your project succeeded or failed to deliver on its objectives, it likely provided a rich environment for learning, experimentation, and trying new tools and techniques. Your staff, partners, and processes were likely tested in unfamiliar ways, and new approaches and tools probably resulted.
Ending a project the right way allows future efforts to build from this experience and makes your organization more effective and capable. Learning to end projects well will pay dividends above and beyond what’s on the list of deliverables.