Finding Project Closure

13 May, 2013

Working on projects can be extremely dissatisfying. This is particularly the case when the objectives of the project include developing a new product and commissioning it on a customer’s site before it is accepted. In these cases, many of the project team move on to other projects, leaving a skeleton crew to handle the commissioning work. Those who have moved on are often consulted on problems that emerge during the commissioning process. In other words, those who leave the project early get a sense that their work was poor and those who stay on the project to the bitter end cannot help but feel that there are still some more latent bugs just waiting to reveal themselves.

This means that the Project Management Institute has not created an entire Closing process group just to make the PMP® exam more difficult; closure is a vital element of any project. For those of you preparing for the PMP® exam, the process Close Project or Phase seems a cumbersome name. However, if your project has different phases and different team configurations for each phase, then a formal closing procedure after every phase is appropriate.

Agile people describe the closing phase as a vital element of control theory. It provides the analysis of each sprint or iteration that feeds back into how the process will work for the next one. If you remember W. Edwards Demming from your PMP® preparation, you will recognize this as the “Check” part of his “Plan-Do-Check-Act” cycle.

While refining the process for the rest of the project makes sense, it is also important to consider those leaving the project and what their feelings are. From the PMP® exam, you will remember all the stages needed for team formation – forming, storming, norming, performing and adjourning. Any time the team changes composition these stages have to happen again with the new grouping. For those moving on to new projects (adjourning), there is an immediate loss of team identify. This is indeed a tangible loss – it’s not surprising that the review of a project is often called a post mortem.

A genuine concern someone has when they know their contribution ends in a few weeks’ time is where they are going next. They can lack interest in this project and lose the motivation to make the final push to close out the phase. The project manager can help with this by providing clear notification of where the person is moving to and acknowledging the team’s work to date by organizing some event at the end of the phase to review what has happened. It is important to take stock at every milestone, celebrate the achievements and learn from the obstacles overcome along the way.

Internal staff concerns are not the only personnel-related issues with closing. From your PMP® preparation, you will remember the world of procurement. Once a vendor is chosen, the contract must be monitored during the Control Procurements process. This can become a lot more difficult if the vendor changes its point-of-contact during the project. Suddenly, the project manager is faced with a different person, who is likely to have a different way of doing things and might not be as easy to deal with. It is useful, when this happens to organize a formal handover from the old point-of-contact to the new. It allows the previous relationship to be reviewed and the lessons learned brought forward to the new one. By raising any issues at this time, the hope is that the new point-of-contact will learn and make life easier for the rest of the project.

But people are not the only motivation for project and phase closeouts. We got to ensure that we know how far we’ve got at a particular phase. Essentially we want to verify (PMBOK® Guide 4th edition) or validate (PMBOK® Guide 5th edition) our scope at the end of each phase. We need to review our schedule and ensure that everything that is supposed to be done in this phase has been done. For instance, in regulated industries, we may need to alert the relevant statutory bodies that a milestone is imminent and to schedule an audit. Similarly, if we have contracted a third-party to assist in this phase of the project, we need to close this transaction formally.

A phase closure is a useful way to review progress with the end customer. It is an opportunity to assess the project’s original goals and to ensure that the customer is still committed to the project in its current form. Agile development has the attraction of being able to hand over potentially shippable product at the end of each iteration and this is a useful way to assure the customer that work is being done. Similarly, presenting customers with the achievements of a phase is appreciated.

If you are awaiting your PMP® exam timeslot, you will have risk management firmly in focus. At the end of a phase, the risk register must be reviewed and any contingency funding you put aside for un-triggered risks must be returned and the financial performance of the phase can be analysed using earned value techniques.

The important thing is not to let milestones pass by without acknowledging them. For a project manager, these make excellent opportunities to review the health of the project and to share that understanding with the team, the sponsor, customers and third-party suppliers. For individuals working on the project teams, it’s a way of assessing how well they are doing. Drifting from project to project, without any sense of accomplishment is deeply frustrating. It’s a bit like running. If you train for a month and finish 10th in a race you know where you stand. If you change your training – maybe seek advice from a coach – and come 5th in the next race, you can quantify your improvement. If you just train and train without running any races, you’ll soon get tired of the effort.

By Velopi Seamus Collins

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