Starting a project is easy. Set your objectives, create a plan, and execute.
But what about project closure?
Too often, projects are never formally put to bed. They’re just “sort-of” closed. Small issues are left unresolved, which can come up later as big problems.
Don’t worry. We’re not going to let that happen to you.
Keep reading to get our 7-step checklist for closing a project the right way (and impressing your boss while you’re at it).
What is project closure?
Project closure is the process of finalizing and finishing a project. It includes any task that will help wrap up lingering issues and archive project documents and files.
If you’ve never done a formal project closure, you may wonder why it’s so important. The project’s done, right? Can’t we just clear our desks and move on?
You’d think so, but there are good reasons to properly close a project:
Validate: You met the expectations for the project, resolved all issues, and got the approvals needed to formally close the project.
Learn: Ensure you won’t repeat mistakes on future projects.
Grow: Allow yourself to improve your processes over time.
Measure: Provide proper reporting, so if an issue ever arises, it’s easy to see where the failure occurred.
Update: Alert everyone involved that you're no longer working on the project or if the responsibilities have changed to a new owner.
Project closure usually happens at the end of a project, but it can also be done at the end of any phase of a project. For instance, if you're working on a website project, you'll likely have four phases:
Instead of waiting until the site goes live to do a formal closure, you may decide to wrap up each phase of the project before moving to the next. Think of it as a "mini" project closure, sometimes known as phase review or handoff.
But regardless of when you do it, you’ll use the same closure checklist to ensure everything is closed properly.
What happens if you don't close your project?
Three scenarios tend to happen when a project isn’t closed correctly. Maybe you’ve experienced one of them already.
Scenario 1: The blame game
Issues come up even after a project’s been closed. If an investigation is needed, good documentation is a lifesaver.
Instead of taking the blame for any issues or mistakes, you’ll have documentation of everything that happened. That includes management and client approvals throughout the project, why changes were made, who requested them, and other vital information.
Auditing the project is easy when it was formally closed. And it’s good insurance for everyone, especially for your client retention strategy as an agency. Keeping clients happy is a lot easier when you've documented every request.
Scenario 2: The project that never ends
An important part of project closure is the client hand-off. That’s when you transfer responsibility for ongoing maintenance and operations to the client.
And yes, you’d think that communicates that the project is done. But if you haven’t formally closed the project, people may assume that you still have ownership. They may continue to call you when an issue comes up.
By doing a proper handoff and getting sign-off from your clients and stakeholders, everyone understands the project is closed, that the project management team is no longer accountable for results.
Scenario 3: The orphan project
Let’s say you don’t do a formal hand-off. The client isn’t trained and equipped to take ownership of the project. You just give them the keys and wave farewell.
When this happens, the project doesn’t get the care it needs. It doesn’t get properly maintained. Customers don’t get the support they need.
It’s essentially orphaned.
And sadly, it will likely end up getting retired. Without clear ownership, a project can’t thrive. To avoid any of these scenarios, let’s look at a simple step-by-step process for closing your projects.
The 7-step project closure checklist
As a project manager, it’s your job to ensure that objectives have been met and the project is ready to be closed. Once you’re sure of that, you’ll need to complete this 7-step checklist:
7-step project closure checklist
1. Formal hand-off
Goal: Transfer ownership to the client.
The first step in closing the project is to give the client all project deliverables. As mentioned above, you shouldn’t just hand them the keys.
Train the new owners to operate and maintain the product or get the results they expect. Give them some project management best practices and suggest ways to integrate into their existing workflow.
After the hand-off, get confirmation from the client that you’ve delivered as promised.
Train users and answer all their questions.
Let the client know about any unresolved issues and problems they may run into.
Fix any issues that arise in the hand-off.
Get sign-off from the client that all deliverables have been completed and handed off.
2. Closeout all contracts and documentation
Goal: Finalize and close project documents, accounts, and contracts.
Every project has countless documents associated with them. Some were drafted to kick off the project. Others were updated throughout the project.
Before you can close the project, you need to review these documents. Is the information up-to-date? Have you consistently logged issues and milestones? Have you explained variances between expected and actual results?
Here are a few of the project documents you’ll need to review:
Assumption log - A record of all assumptions and constraints that guide the specs, estimates, schedule, and risks.
Requirements document - A list of requirements for the project. Be sure to include evidence that you complied with each item on the list.
Basis of estimates - A comparison of your estimates for time, costs, and resources versus the actual results.
Change log - A record of all change requests throughout the project.
Issue log - A record of all issues that arose throughout the project and how they were resolved.
Milestone list - A summary of each milestone of the project, with completion dates for each.
Project communication - A log of all project emails, meetings, and other communications.
Quality control measurements - Tests and assessments that show compliance with the project’s quality requirements.
Quality reports - Quality assurance issues that were handled throughout the project, with recommendations for improvement.
Risk register - Risks that you’ve identified or experienced throughout the project.
Risk report - A log of how risks have been addressed, with the current risk status.
Now is the time to close out your contracts and project accounts. Make sure all contractors have been paid for their work and that there are no outstanding invoices.
Update and finalize project documents.
Close contracts and project accounts.
Pay any outstanding invoices.
3. Review lessons learned
Goal: Get feedback from everyone who worked on the project.
It’s easy to get excited that the project is complete and resist a post-mortem meeting. But it’s important to carve out time to review the project and record lessons learned.
For team leads, it helps to have a project Planning Overview like the one available in Teamwork.com. This provides you with a detailed view of where and when your resources (people) are allocated, which is based on estimated time.
You can also view the total number of hours that are allocated over a specific time frame. You can do this by person, project, or even company.
Next, you will want to dig into a few specific areas. First, anything that contributed to the success. Second, what worked and what didn’t. A few questions that can help:
What contributed to the project’s success?
What worked as planned?
What issues need to be addressed?
Did you have the resources and support you needed?
How can our workflow be improved?
This information helps you identify the areas in your workflow and procedures that could be improved. More importantly, it keeps you from making the same mistakes again.
What to include in your retro meeting
Start with a survey. Then follow up with a meeting. This two-step approach may seem like overkill, but in the long run, it will save everyone time.
Just think back to other brainstorm meetings you’ve attended. Many people draw a blank because they feel pressured to come up with something smart.
It takes time to mentally review the project and recall issues that were resolved (or not). By sending out a survey a few days before your meeting, you’ll give your team a chance to come up with thoughtful answers.
When you then meet, you’ve already got the talking points. Use the meeting for discussion, not brainstorming.
Also, take flawless meeting notes. Make sure there's some collective hub where you can store project notes, like Teamwork.com's Spaces. Our hub acts as the de facto space for all things pertaining to a project or the process you've implemented.
Don't lose important notes or documents with endless shared files flying all over the place.
Create a survey to gather lessons learned. Include the questions listed above, or come up with your own questions.
Send it to everyone who worked on the project.
Log the results.
Hold the lessons-learned meeting.
Discuss the items on your list. Prioritize them. Add notes, explanations, and recommendations for improvement.
4. Measure client satisfaction
Goal: Get feedback from the client.
As part of your lessons learned, it can be helpful to get client feedback to answer two questions:
Do the project deliverables meet expectations?
Did the processes meet expectations?
A short survey, like this one from PM Foundations, will give you the information you need.
When creating a survey, make sure you keep it short enough to finish in 5 minutes or less. And provide space for comments to each question to get more helpful feedback.
Create a client feedback survey.
Send it to key individuals in the client organization.
Record the responses.
Add the survey and results to the project documents.
5. Prepare the project closure report
Goal: Summarize the project for senior management, so they can evaluate its impact and improve processes for future projects.
The last piece of documentation you need to prepare for any project is the project closure report. This report is an overview of the entire project, its objectives and whether you met them, the project timeline, risks, and outcomes.
What goes into a project closure report?
A summary of the project: Did it successfully meet expectations when the project was created?
Scope objectives: Give evidence that all completion criteria were met.
Quality objectives: Provide a quick summary of how quality was evaluated. This should include verification that milestones and delivery dates were met, and reasons for any area that doesn’t meet your initial expectations.
Cost objectives: Include the estimated cost range, actual costs, and reasons for any variances.
Schedule objectives: Add analysis of whether the outcomes met the goals for the project. If the goals haven’t been met, how far off are you?
How the project achieved the business needs: Were these identified in the business plan?
Risks or issues encountered: What came up as a surprise on the project and how they was it addressed.
Lessons learned: What did you learn and what would you recommend for improvement?
Using the template above, write your project closure report.
Turn it into senior management and stakeholders who will sign off on the project.
6. Get sign-off on the project
Goal: Get sign-off from all stakeholders and formally close the project.
Senior management and key stakeholders should review the project closure report to verify that all objectives have been met. In particular:
Who signed off on the project
Once you have the proper approvals, you can formally close the project. Make sure your team has the appropriate permissions to close, finalize, or approve projects in your platform.
Don’t forget to announce the project closure. Notify everyone who’s worked on the project: your team, stakeholders, partners, contractors, and suppliers. Let them know they’re released to work on other projects or reallocate their resources.
Note: Make sure you document all approvals. It won’t likely be necessary, but if an issue arises, you may need proof that everyone signed off before the project was closed. Think signatures on deliverables, delivery receipts, and transcripts from meetings.
Follow up with management and stakeholders until you have their sign-off on the project.
Document all approvals.
Send an email announcing the project closure.
Step 7. Archive the project
Goal: Remove the project from your workflow and preserve its data in case you need it later.
In your project management software, archive the project. Index and file all documents, contracts, and agreements. These should all be part of the project archive.
Having access to your archived projects is essential if you ever need to go back to them. With Teamwork.com, we make it easy to view all of your projects, whether they're open, closed, or archived.
Archive the project in your project management software.
Index and fill all documents, contracts, and agreements.
Close any remaining project accounts.
If you haven’t already, reassign personnel, resources, and equipment.
Getting used to the project closure phase
As you can see, a lot goes into project closure. It may even seem overwhelming or unnecessary. But good project management includes a formal closure of the project. Period.
It gives you a single, organized place to look when you have questions about the project. It also helps you optimize processes over time.
And it will help you clean your desk (both physically and mentally) so you can move on to your next project. Use our 7-step checklist the next time you close a project.
You’ll enjoy the closure it gives you. And as a bonus, you’ll impress the socks off your team.