Failing to effectively end projects can have high but hidden costs. Some companies are so buried in the latest and hottest project or in “fighting fires” that they fail to close projects constructively. In doing so they not only miss opportunities to generate extra value for the company and everyone involved, but also to maintain the quality of management information (financial and other types) and prevent or limit cost overruns. When projects aren’t formally ended some workers may go on working on them unaware that it is time to move on to other work. Other workers may find reason to continue to charge the project for their time, especially if they run into a slack period without enough work to keep them busy (which happens naturally in many product development organizations or in highly seasonal work). This is especially likely where “charging overhead” has a negative stigma attached to it and project charge codes are not shut off. There are many ways that project endings provide value, however, if they are timely, well planned, and properly executed . Here are a bunch of them:
Share results, lessons learned, and a treat with everyone. Not only the workers involved in the project, but others in the firm who have parallel projects or who may someday take part in a similar project can gain from the lessons learned. Key suppliers and subcontractors may also be included, especially where relationships with them extend beyond the scope of the project that is ending. The formalization and consolidation as well as distribution of knowledge is a source of significant value to the organization as a whole. Attaching a tasty treat and some humor to the ceremony engages the right side of the brain in a way that cements the learning experience as well as the positive feelings that will motivate future efforts and a desire to do better.
Recognize team and individual efforts – People get tremendous intrinsic value, self-confidence, and satisfaction in their work from having their contributions recognized, and that feeling builds a lasting sense of loyalty to the team and the firm. Also, workers are reminded that management both within and outside of the project notice, care about, and value their efforts. This sends the message that management is “on the ball” and builds a feeling of confidence in the company and its leadership.
Give workers are chance to celebrate completion, successful or not. Make an effort to recognize the positive benefits of the work, even when some would call the project a failure. What is learned through failure has far more value, manifested in the success of future projects, than a successful result would have, but benefiting from this requires handling failure properly with a constructive approach that might be expressed as “what did you learn that you can teach us?” Don’t let new knowledge be buried because people are feeling bad or guilty about it – that is a loss to the company and everyone associated with it.
Create camaraderie and team spirit by letting team members who might have been separated by time or distance meet each other face to face. Often workers on a project are separated by vast distances, as when the engineers are in one state but customer acceptance testing is done in another. Participants may have met in phone conferences but never in person. In other cases the team may be fragmented in time. Frequently the team that plans and kicks off a large-scale project is quite different from the team that carries out the bulk of the development and construction work, and the team that launches the product or service may be the “closers” who train customers and staff or expand sales and distribution over a large area and a diversity of customer groups and subsidiary organizations. Obviously cost is a consideration in having people travel to attend such a meeting, but the hidden benefit is significant and easy to underestimate.
Build team and company loyalty with lasting tokens of appreciation and hard evidence of belonging and experience that will give workers instant status and reminders of their successes and hard work. At an auto company where I worked participating in a major vehicle development program was rewarded with a “launch jacket” with the product logo and model year embroidered on the front, and forever after when a worker walked into a meeting wearing his or her jacket it provided instant “street cred”, letting all know that they had meaningful experience and knowledge to contribute. This was much better than a plaque they would take home or a small trophy or certificate that would sit back at their desk. This is similar to the boy scout badge system, where the badges on a garment indicate the extent and variety of a person’s skills and accomplishments, and instantly give evidence of their ability to learn, produce results, and contribute to the group effort. In essence, a little “swag” goes a long way.
Keep cost and labor records accurate by formally announcing the shutting off of charge codes. This event is a great time to do this so that people won’t inadvertently or deliberately keep charging the project. All involved will know that the work is truly over for this project and it is time to stop charging it for time and materials. Accounting staff, who should attend the ceremony since they, too, contributed to the project, can allow a set period such as 30 or 60 days for final invoices to be paid, expense reports to be submitted, and similar occurrences, before shutting off the charge codes and closing the project’s books.
Closing projects positively with appropriate ceremony is smart. The organization that fails to effectively close projects and major activities is missing opportunities to generate a lot of present and future value for the firm, maintain records accuracy, control costs, build company loyalty and team spirit, cement relationships, and capture a lot of other value, some of which is in areas that may not be immediately obvious. I hope your organization improves in how they close projects. The many aspects of value involved will all flow to the customer as better products and services and will enhance profits in subtle and not-so-subtle ways for years to come.
I look forward to your comments, questions, and additions to this important topic. Thanks for reading — Tim