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The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of Project Closeout

By definition, all projects end.

The certainty of project closeout can often be forgotten as the timeline of the endeavor is so extended that delivery is difficult to envision or, in the case of waterfall project management models, closure is lost as the deliverables flow continuously.

In many cases closure is an ignored consideration as there is unconscious recognition that the project will likely be transitioned to new staff by the time a closure is required.

Related Article: Closeout the Year with Project Success

Consider for example the biopharmaceutical industry where product development can span over a decade, cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and involve the collective effort of thousands of individuals in multiple locations around the globe. Although we envision the project progression as a relay race, handoffs are frequently blurred. Discovery scientists will commonly serve on development teams to provide perspective on how the compound acts in animal models and product quality attributes critical to achieving the desired therapeutic effect.

Members of the development team will in turn work with commercialization teams to facilitate product launch. Lifecycle management can bring the process full circle, re-engaging discovery and development professionals in expanding the indications to increase the market size, developing novel processes to lower costs and creating next generation products to protect market leadership position and revenue streams.

This scenario is further oversimplified as it fails to account for project team hierarchies and the presence of sub-teams. Despite these complexities, the identification of project closure stages and understanding closeout approaches, or lack thereof, can significantly impact the likelihood of project success and the success of the organizations the undertake them.

The Good

Good project closures are typically born from the successful delivery of the final product or service. After the party, team members generally relish the opportunity to engage in post-project reviews and update organizational processes since it provides a means of highlighting individual accomplishments and through doing so garnering recognition. It is also possible to use this generally affective behavior to cross pollinate other project teams. As successful project teams are disbanded, the members carry with them their positive experiences and knowledge to their new assignments, often invigorating teams that are struggling with motivation or teamwork.

Perhaps the most readily applicable outcome of successful project closure is leveraging lessons learned to implement process improvements. These process improvements can be both technological as well as project management practices to increase the efficiency of subsequent projects.
In biopharmaceuticals, it is often possible to initiate a cost reduction project as the first generation product is launched into the marketplace or leverage technical observations into potential improvements useful across multiple products. Similarly, opportunities to streamline project management processes and governance may present themselves, improving the productivity of the entire organization.

The Bad

In the absence of achieving the primary deliverables, project closures are often intuitively considered a bad outcome whether the closure results from insurmountable technical challenges, changes in the company’s financial condition or changes in the competitive business environment. Such decisions can be demoralizing, especially if the project is closed when the team is working effectively toward an agreed upon milestone.

However, “bad” can be a misnomer and in fact, definitive project termination combined with directed closeout processes can have broad beneficial effects.

One of the most significant positive impacts of decisive project closure is the release of personnel and funding for other projects. Individual projects are typically but a piece of an organization’s portfolio; strategically analyzing the overall resource capacity, prioritizing projects and closing some as needed to balance business needs can be critical to ensure must-win projects have the necessary budget and staffing support continued progression. Failure to proactively manage program breadth is financially inefficient and creates stress on personnel. This can impact team performance, not only the ability to perform tasks but the team environment as well.

While project closure is not inherently negative, human nature often drives team members to distance themselves from the work and herein lays the challenge for project managers engaging in closeout processes. Stress reactions vary among individuals but can be manifested by less participation and reduced willingness to work cooperatively. Communicating the reasons for project termination will mitigate the prevalence of deleterious behavior. Gaining comfort with the project closure process develops a resilient workforce where individuals are secure in the knowledge that there is new life after a project ends. In addition, understanding the root cause of closure can empower other project teams to better manage similar issues that might arise in the future. Consequently many organizations will measure the time from project initiation to closure and encourage teams to adopt fast failure strategies as a means of managing resource demand, promoting technology development and ensuring portfolio balancing.

Demonstrating the value proposition for closure activities is paramount; in the absence of communicating the benefits individuals are not motivated or may not be provided the time by management to contribute to the process. Definition of the closeout deliverables will facilitate team and stakeholder engagement by establishing a vision of end results. Foremost among these is documentation. Final reports serve as a key reference on project status at closure and should function as a roadmap for archived information such as technical documents, risk assessments, decision logs and inventory disposition. Final reports are especially critical when the project may be reactivated in the future. Often considerable time will have the passed from closure to reactivation and the staff that originally worked on the project are no longer available or capable of serving as a source of institutional knowledge. In such circumstances, a comprehensive final report is the best means to avoid repeating work or reinvesting budget to replace materials.

While writing final reports can be viewed as onerous, it is possible to motivate contributors by using the information gathered to promote organizational and individual growth. For example, the technical sections of final reports can be used to author patent applications or publications in trade journals. Patents can play an important role in protecting technology long enough for an organization to complete product development or build value as a merger or acquisition target. Similarly, publications can be a powerful motivator for team members to commit to a closeout process since publication demonstrates individual expertise and in the unfortunate scenario where project closure is concomitant with corporate downsizing can aid individuals in obtaining positions at new organizations.

The Ugly

Ugly is ingloriously distinguished by the absence of project closure. Not recognizing project underperformance, particularly at the organizational level, is frequently a leading root cause driving to unmanaged project closure. As projects flounder, ad hoc communications can create a negative perception that may become accepted as reality. Matrix organizations, where the balance between functional and project priorities are blended, are particularly sensitive to this scenario. As negative perceptions grow, there is a risk that functional management will redirect resources to more favorably viewed projects and through doing so exacerbate the very issues contributing to poor project performance. Moreover, when one function withdraws support others may follow suit, accelerating project deterioration and in effect instigating a closeout. Functional groups are not alone in allowing perception and ambiguity to undermine projects; portfolio managers can be similarly guilty of allowing projects that are misaligned with the business objectives to persist to the point where personnel can readily read the writing on the walls which can lead to even a subconscious change in team member commitment or focus. Regardless the reason, when such circumstances arise project managers can inadvertently find themselves managing a closeout without support from the organization or the team itself.

As the team deteriorates it is not uncommon for members to engage in rescue operations in an attempt to maintain the project. Significant effort may be spent in crafting alternative goals or plans that are perceived by a tenacious group of stakeholders as having potential to deliver value but are misaligned with the project charter or the organizational strategy. This response can create strained relationships, and the resulting friction may be transferred to other teams and impact the productivity of unrelated projects. While project managers are not immune to similar predilections, training in best practices can mitigate the risks and make the most of an ugly situation

In Closing

While all experienced project managers know communication is a major focus of their role, ensuring the organization gains from the experience of doing the work on a project, no matter how it ends, is one of the key business values of project management professionals. Thus, the moment you are assigned to a project, you own the responsibility of communicating how it will close. Paradoxically by preparing for closeout from inception, project managers contribute to organizational success by building a flexible workforce capable of continuously improving business processes to make effective, data-driven decisions.

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