Some Thoughts on Project “Closure”

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I’m currently working with the team of function heads at Red Gate developing a “skills map” for all our development roles. (I’m primarily covering Project Management).

Having “bought-in” skills inventories at previous companies and failed with months of time and effort wasted, we’ve taken our approach from the ground-up, knowing our role definitions are pretty unique to us and managed to get to “usable” for trials in less than 2 weeks! (We’ll be sharing what we did in the near future)

Having mapped out the set of skills and directions at a high level, we’re in the process of taking each skill and defining what the skill actually means to us, why it’s important, what does “good” look like and where to turn for more info or help. Each of us on the team is trying a couple out for starters and then planning to crowd-source the rest.

I’ve decided to start with “Project Closure” as a skill that’s not too simplistic, is really important to us and an area where through most of my career I’ve not often seen a “great job” done.

Before I progress, what I mean by Project Closure is everything required to get from an in-flight running happily along project to “done” – the ramping-down.  This is Not what PMI, PRINCE2, APM or most other standard PM definitions define as “Closure”.

This disconnect is why I decided to write this post. Most PM resources talk about closure being sign-off, completion of project documentation and lessons-learned meetings or retrospectives (and a few other process and stakeholder type things).

Having done a bit of hunting, it turns out there’s very little information available on “ramp-down”. It’s no surprise projects overrun with the lack of support and resources that exist around this area! “Traditional” project closure happens once everything’s already been delivered.

Forgive me if I’m being a bit ranty here but surely that’s after the horse has bolted, right?

What about all that effort of putting all those loose project tentacles back in the box first?

An Octopus in a treasure chest

How do we get from an “in-flight” project to “Done”.

My best analogy to this comes from the “String and Octopus Guide to Parenthood” that my first ever boss sent me a copy of over 15 years ago.

5. Dressing small children is not as easy as it seems: first buy an octopus and a string bag. Attempt to put the octopus into the string bag so that none of the arms hang out.

Time allowed for this – all morning.

Closing out projects well is hard and it takes  longer than you ever expect it to.

I’ve not finished writing up the full skill definition yet but I wanted to share where I am so far for anyone out there that wants at least a slight pointer in the right direction…

(Note, this is my definition based on the context I work in at the moment. It doesn’t conform to any certifiable standard so don’t scream if you answer your PMI exam questions on closure with stuff from this and get it wrong.)

A Short Definition

Project Closure (as a skill) is the ability to take a project from actively running to successful delivery and completion with a happy team, low defects, no panics, and in a timely fashion.

This is usually meeting a planned release date if there’s one set but for some teams can also mean getting to a point where we’re shipping production quality software with completed, working features on a frequent, regular basis and have the ability to move a team successfully off of a project stream (ready to work on another) and close it down in a satisfactory way for the team, customers, product management and the business if needed.

Why Is This Valuable?

Unless we ship valuable working software regularly we don’t keep customers happy and we find it harder to attract new customers. Working on products that don’t ship for long periods of time also has a pretty negative impact on morale for everyone involved – we love getting our stuff in the hands of customers and making them happy & successful!

We also risk building up large quantities of undelivered code or features (“inventory” waste in Lean terms), racking up undiscovered defects, increasing project risk and technical debt. The longer a project or feature is under active development, typically the longer it takes to shut down and ship.

Being able to ship and close down a project  is vital to our ability to balance investment across projects and products as it’s likely we’ll always have less teams than things we want to deliver and need to be flexible around team size, availability and commitments.

What Does “Mastery” Look Like Here?

Someone handling project closure really well will have a good handle on the state of development in relation to the remaining time left for a project to run and how long it’s been since we last shipped a successful release.

You’d probably expect them to be looking at what’s needed to close out the project from the point it’s about 2/3 complete. As an example – if you’re running a 3 month project, then most of the effort from the PM in the last month will be around closing things down.

They’ll be winding things down in a controlled manner with no surprises and no extreme rushes to the goal. Known bugs will be visible, regularly reviewed and going down, release testing will be planned, scheduled and resourced – chances are there will be a full-team release test towards the very end. Documentation will be all well under control, a UI freeze will be planned and completed. Features will be winding down or completed and bug fixing will be moving from high-risk breaking type bug fixes to showstoppers, visible, cosmetic or quality issues and small functional gaps for tying off.

They’ll have worked with our marketing team or product manager to ensure marketing is ready to go. Our sales and support teams will be being briefed on the new features, and we’ll have probably completed at least one bug hunt.

In the week or 2 before closure we’d expect to see a controlled code freeze and whilst the PM might be having to negotiate and plan what’s coming next they’ll still have a really tight rein on scope, be making decisions on any new incoming issues and setting clear priorities.

They’ll be encouraging the team to support each other across roles and swarming on areas that need a real push whilst ensuring that we don’t lose sight of the original project goals, customers’ needs and product quality.

 

That’s it – so far. If you have anything useful to add to this, please dive in and comment (mind the tentacles)

 

 

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