Much of the focus in the project management community (and our practical day-to-day work) is on how to kick off and run a project. Unfortunately, we don’t place as much focus on project closure—an essential phase in any project’s lifecycle.
Let’s correct that! In this article, we’ll look into why it matters to close projects effectively and how.
What is project closure?
Project closure is the final phase of a project’s lifecycle, where all activities, tasks, and responsibilities are completed, and the project is formally brought to an end.
Closure mainly involves:
- Completing all project-related activities
- Documenting and reporting on the project's outcomes
Why does it matter to close projects?
A project is done when all the tasks are done, right? Not really. Project closure should be a deliberate step that enables the project team to analyze the project's overall success and identify lessons learned.
Closure provides an opportunity to assess whether the project achieved its objectives, delivered the desired outcomes, and adhered to the agreed-upon scope, budget, and timeline.
It’s also important because it’s not just about analyzing success, but also failure. It’s a reminder that not all projects reach their intended destination, and many are even canceled early.
In these situations, it would be easy to just end things quickly and move on to the next project. But that’s a missed opportunity—there are likely some big lessons to learn to reduce the chance of failure in the future.
Six steps to closing a project correctly
1. Evaluate final deliverables
As a project enters its final stages, you should maintain the same level of focus and evaluate deliverables just as vigorously as during the project.
Ensure the final project deliverables are completed to the agreed standard. Use real-time reports to see if you can close the project safely without having gone over budget or leaving miscommunications unresolved. For example, if you’re using a resource planning tool like Float, you can see your logged billable hours against the estimates.
You can also check your project management tool for the percentage completed based on the assigned tasks, and see if you need to allocate extra time in the last phases to meet the agreed-upon timeline. Be sure to document any deliverables that won’t be completed.
2. Arrange for support and maintenance
This part is usually built into any contract, but can sometimes be missed or lost in the haze of a busy project. It refers to those who will support and maintain the project’s end product after closure.
I’ve seen how things go when this aspect of project closure is neglected. It can damage relationships with stakeholders, which is a massive shame if everything else has gone well during project delivery.
Make sure you have a solid plan beforehand, and check contractual agreements during project closure to establish and communicate everyone’s responsibilities post-launch.
3. Deal with payments and paperwork
You may have been reviewing and signing a lot of contracts and payment slips during a project’s lifecycle, especially when you’re using third-party contractors and suppliers to complete work.
The project closure phase is your chance to tidy up all outstanding paperwork and payments.
This is super important because it can also be very daunting for the best project managers. I’ve seen people who are good at managing scope, timelines and budgets fall short when it comes to timely and accurate paperwork management. The result is frustrated suppliers and contractors and, worst case scenario, legal ramifications.
So, as your project reaches its closing phase, carve out some time to do the boring stuff well and maintain a good reputation with all stakeholders, both internal and external.
4. Conduct a post-mortem session
As project managers, we often have to manage multiple projects simultaneously. So whenever one project ends, you may be tempted to quickly divert your focus on the rest of still ongoing projects, or even new ones. It’s easy to just be happy to end a project.
But, this way, you’re missing out on a golden opportunity to learn lessons that will improve your future projects.
My advice? Ensure you conduct a comprehensive post-mortem during the project closure phase—much like the agile retrospectives you'd do if you follow the Scrum methodology.
Ideally, this will involve the entire project team, i.e., anyone who has worked on the project for a long time. You may wish to run multiple sessions, such as one with the internal project team and another with stakeholders. It’s up to you and often depends on the dynamics and politics involved.
In these post-mortem sessions, aim to capture the following data points:
- What went well: A high-level catch-all category to surface the most memorable highlights
- What did not go well: A high-level catch-all category to surface the most memorable lowlights
- Project objectives analysis: Were the project objectives met? If not, why not?
- Project planning and execution: How well or poorly was the project planned and executed, and why?
- Scope management: Was this effective or not? What could be improved?
- Timeline management: How well did we stick to our planned timelines? How did we manage changes to timelines?
- Budget management: How did we fair against the original budget? How can we create better estimates and manage the budget next time?
- Risk and issues management: How well did we manage risks and issues? Ask for examples of where you did well and poorly and how to improve.
- Stakeholder engagement: How engaged were stakeholders in the project? Did we face any challenges in this area?
- Team collaboration: How well did the project team work together? What did we learn about how to work more effectively together?
- Lessons learned: What are the key lessons?
- Recommendations: Based on the lessons learned, what are the key recommendations for people to take away from this project and use on future projects?
5. Create a detailed report
An often-forgotten step in project closure is always to document and report how a project ended up when complete.
The report should include elements such as:
- Executive summary
- Project background to remind people why the project was initiated in the first place
- Completed high-level deliverables, the big-ticket items
- Project timeline, estimated vs. actual
- Project objectives and the status of each, i.e. how many were met vs. how many were not
- A financial report showing the starting budget vs. the actual budget at the end
- Most significant challenges faced and accomplishments
- Lessons learned for future projects
- Thank yous
The report should be sent to stakeholders and everyone who worked on the project. Don’t just send reports to bosses and stakeholders—I believe the report’s content should interest everyone who contributed. Sharing it with the team helps you:
- Raise commercial awareness in project folks who are often shielded from that side of things during a project
- Maintains the project ‘team’ vibe that was hopefully developed during the project
- Share lessons learned that will help everyone in future projects.
Plan and track projects with confidence
Create timelines and budgets, allocate project work, and get reports of estimates vs. actuals to help your future plans in Float.Try for free
6. Celebrate 🎉
I’ve managed projects ranging from $10k to multi-millions, and very few have been easy. Most projects encounter challenges that put everyone’s skills, stamina, resilience, and patience to the test.
So, when a project ends successfully, ensure you celebrate it!
Help the project team feel appreciated for all their hard work, and this goes a long way with people. They may have had projects where they worked shedding sweat and tears only to be thanked by email and shoved onto the next project—this is just not good for motivation to work with the same project managers or team again.
So, make a difference! Celebrate and show genuine gratitude to those who executed your plans so well.
Granted, it takes discipline to consistently run thorough project closure phases for all your projects. But trust me, it’s critical—not only will you guarantee that your projects will end smoothly with no loose ends, but you’ll also be able to learn valuable lessons that will make future projects less bumpy.
This is the way to become a more and more effective and experienced project manager. More importantly, your reputation with stakeholders and project teams will soar, making it easier to excite people about working with you in future projects.
If you need a more detailed checklist for project closure, download or copy this Google doc.