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The Benefits of Closing Projects – Beyond Lessons Learned

In my experience, and in talking with my students and other practitioners, it is my perception that closing projects is one of the most overlooked processes in the discipline of project management.

It’s easy to understand why closing often gets neglected. By the time the project is over, many stakeholders, including the team, have already turned their attention to the next project. In fact, sponsors sometimes lose focus by the time there is confidence that the bulk of the work has been done and deliverables have been received. It doesn’t always feel like time well spent to go through the exercise of closing.

As with all project management processes, the degree of rigor needs to be scaled appropriately to the project, organization, and stakeholder need. It may not need to be a formal or heavy process, especially if it doesn’t involve regulations or compliance. In fact, a leaner process done periodically along the way often makes it not only easier but also more valuable.

Ignoring the process altogether may mean missing some important benefits. Some habit around a closing exercise will benefit the organization and serve the stakeholders well in the long run.

Along with conducting a lessons learned session, getting approval for deliverables, and resolving outstanding issues, a key closing activity involves the collection, organization, and storage or archiving of project information. Recently, a colleague and I were sharing project experiences and our conversation highlighted three interrelated benefits of this closing activity:

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1. Retrieval of Project Communications

Many organizations only keep email and other communications for a period of time. Typically, closing the project involves collection of project communications, including email. If there are questions asked about a project that closed 10 months ago, and the answer lies somewhere in an email string, you may not be able to get to it if the organization only keeps email for 6 months. For example, I have worked on projects in which it was enormously helpful to be able to go back and review emails from previous projects to help develop more effective strategies for working with stakeholders.

2. Captured Thoughts While People Still Have Them

Team members and SMEs who move from project to project often have invaluable information not just about things that are likely to be captured in a lessons learned exercise, but also how something was done, what options were considered, or various experiments that may have been tried. In fact, in my colleague’s case, they were asked what they had accomplished on a past project and because nothing had been closed out, it was difficult to present what had been delivered. It wasn’t that they had failed to deliver anything, but there was no acknowledgement of the intangible deliverables. Months later, they were hard pressed to present what had been done. In this particular case, the organization wanted to restart the project and it was hard to know where to begin. This case is a great example of the value of not waiting until the end to close. A closing process that includes collecting key information from the team will mitigate the problem of not being able to recall details later when it might be helpful to leverage that past experience.

3. Retained Context for Project Decisions

Capturing project information as part of closing typically includes market, financial, or other data that has gone into project decisions. While the decisions may be long remembered after a project is finished, it can be difficult to recreate the data context that lead to those decisions. When future projects require a decision, it may be helpful to know what the data looked like at the time a decision was made on a past project. Closing captures that snapshot of the data as it looked at the time, providing the context for project decisions that were made at the time.

People are often inclined to archive information, especially communications, for defensive purposes. But this is not about archiving simply to have a record or paper trail as proof of something (which suggests a lack of trust). Project information and data that is likely to be helpful in the future often goes beyond the thoughts and reflections captured as part of a lessons learned exercise. Without some intention around gathering that data, communications, records, etc., there is a missed opportunity to easily go back to refresh memories on what happened in order to answer questions or get input into new decisions.

So the next time you are tempted to gloss over or ignore closing, consider these benefits of collecting and archiving project information as part of closing your project — either at the end of the project or, better yet, periodically along the way.

I’d be curious about your experience with collecting and archiving project information. When have project archives served you well from past projects?

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