Jory MacKay
Jory is a writer, content strategist and award-winning editor of the Unsplash Book. He contributes to Inc., Fast Company, Quartz, and more.
March 29, 2022 · 9 min read

The ultimate guide to closing projects (with free project closure checklist and report)

🎁 Bonus Material: Free Project Closure Checklist and Report

The ultimate guide to closing projects

All good (and bad) things must come to an end, especially in project management. Project closure is the final stage of the project lifecycle. More than just handing over deliverables, the closure process is an official ‘wrapping up’ of all the work you’ve done.

But what project manager has time for that?

For most teams, an official project closure process feels like a waste of time. You have too much else going on to worry about another administrative process. Or, you think that being an Agile team means that projects never really end, and therefore why even learn about project closure?

The truth is that ignoring proper project closure opens you up to additional risks, prevents you from implementing lessons learned, and can undermine your credibility as a project leader.

Closing projects doesn’t have to be complicated. In this guide, we’ll run through a simple process that can guide you as you close out projects, learn from your experiences, and move onto the next one.

What is project closure? And why is it important?

Project closure is the final step of the project lifecycle where you tie up loose ends, officially hand off deliverables, and communicate with your team and stakeholders about the project’s outcome.

The project closure process ensures all work has been completed to scope, all other project management processes have been executed (like QA testing), and you’ve received the final sign-off from all parties.

There are several responsibilities during this stage:

The project closure process

  1. Finalize any project documents you started with (such as your scope of work or project plan)
  2. Make sure your deliverables have met their definition of done and hand them off to the relevant team or client
  3. Hold a retrospective meeting to share and document lessons learned
  4. Complete any final closure reports and send them to stakeholders and executives
  5. Update your processes or project plans going forward based on what you’ve learned and shipped
  6. Hand off responsibility for the project to the relevant team, whether that’s support or another technical team that will implement what you’ve built

That’s a lot of work. And project closure can feel like an unnecessarily long step. However, there are risks to ignoring it or doing a ‘soft close’.

The risks of ignoring a dedicated project closure plan

There are a few serious risks to ignoring a dedicated project closure plan.

First, you might end up with a never-ending project.

Even if you fulfill your scope, without an official closure, the project remains ‘open’ in the eyes of the organization. As a result, your project team remains responsible for maintaining and upkeep, which severely limits how much work you can take on in the future.

Next, your project could end up in ‘limbo’.

Without an official handoff, no one knows who is responsible for maintenance and support. The project becomes an orphan, with no official home.

You also run the risk of making the same mistakes over and over.

Lessons learned are a huge part of project closure. But without a process for capturing and implementing them, you’re doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over.

Finally, you might miss payments or critical deadlines.

If you’re an agency, the closure process ensures you can put through your final billing cycle and get paid for your work.

When does a project actually ‘end’?

One of the most common reasons why teams skip the project closure stage is they don’t know that a project is finished.

Is it when your project management software is clean and every task has been moved into the ‘complete’ column?

Or, is it when you’ve shipped your project and customers are starting to use it?

Or, is it when your team gets assigned to another project?

For Agile teams, closure becomes even more complicated as you’re working to continuously build and improve your product.

Agile board showing most issues in the closed column
Agile board with most issues already completed and in the "Done" column.

The truth is that any of these situations could mean your project is done. According to the Project Management Institute, a project is ‘closed’ when:

  1. All the work has been completed
  2. All project management processes have been completed
  3. Everyone–from the team to stakeholders–agrees that the project is completed

By that definition, project closure can happen at different stages or milestones of a larger project as well as at the very end. Ultimately project closure varies from business to business and from project to project.

Ignoring proper project closure can undermine your credibility as a project leader.

But, a good rule of thumb is to wait until these criteria have been met:

  1. Your team has done (or handed off the work for) testing
  2. You’ve delivered the project and it’s been approved by stakeholders and/or clients
  3. It’s live

But then what?

The 3 stages of project closure

There are three steps to closing a project: tying up loose ends, documenting lessons learned, and updating reports and roadmaps.

Avoid rushing through the closure stages and trying to complete them all in one day or afternoon. By taking your time you’ll ensure your project closure is effective and everyone involved in the project is on the same page.

Stage 1: Tie up technical loose ends

Aim: Make sure the project can stand alone without crashing.

Start by ensuring that what you’ve shipped is stable and that your product board and planning documents are updated based on the outcome.

1. Ensure the project is stable

When you successfully launch your project, you need to make sure it’s stable.

Even if you’ve thoroughly checked the live product for any stability issues, it’s important to keep checking (i.e. smoke test). Here are a few of the key steps you should take to monitor for potential issues:

Essentially, you need to think about all your unique features, vulnerable features, and any features you’ve had issues with before.

2. Test top priority features

When you’ve made a list of your top priority features, it’s time to retest them. You undoubtedly tested before your launch but with live servers, active users, and potential undetected glitches, it’s best to keep testing.

3. Next, check your scope/project board for items you skipped or deprioritized

Even if you’re sure that your project management software board is empty, there might be a few leftover items you forgot about or deprioritized during project development.

Recheck the scope/plan for forgotten items (like how-to guides or other items deemed ‘less important’ during development). Perhaps you intended to publish a user self-help guide at the same time as your product launch or a video tutorial showcasing the product’s key features.

Discuss these missed items with your team and stakeholder and decide what to do. Do they fit in this scope? Should they be discarded? How should you delegate them?

One way to help you finish up any delayed items in the future, is to set up a notification system for postponed tasks.

For example, in Planio you can set a due date for tasks. That way, the assignee and any other watchers of the task will be notified when a task is due or overdue.

Due date in an issue is overdue and red

Due dates can be hard deadlines or just reminders to revisit a task you put off when you were busy.

4. Clean up your code and project board

Once you’ve finished a project it’s tempting to move forward and not look back. But your team (and your future self) will thank you for taking the time to clean up your project board.

Make sure any future teams can make sense of the work and have access to all relevant files, documents, and code repositories.

You’ll save yourself the pain of having to find and go through mountains of files and documents to get that one line of code your client wants.

5. Check deliverables against your definition of done

It’s easy for the smaller components of projects to fall through the cracks while you’re busy handling the bigger stuff. Before you totally wind down any project, make sure to check off your deliverables.

Think about your definition of done and evaluate how each completed component of the project fits into the definition.

What products, services, or features were your clients expecting? Did your project deliver on these items?

Review your list of deliverables and methodically check off what you have and haven’t completed.

6. Double check all documents (assumption log, risk management report, estimations, definition of done)

Tying up loose ends and properly closing your projects inevitably means going through all of those documents you created at the start of the project.

Part of this stage is checking that your project ran according to what you set out in these initial documents. Did your project remain within the realms of your risk management report? Did it stick to your budget estimations and schedule?

Reviewing these documents will help you assess the accuracy of your initial estimations and predictions and how your project stacked up.

All good (and bad) things must come to an end, especially in project management.

Stage 2: Review and document lessons learned

Aim: Identify lessons to implement in future projects.

Next, take time to document what went well, what didn’t, and what you can do to improve future projects.

1. Do any formal handoffs to clients, stakeholders, or the next team

Formal handoffs are more than just saying “our work is done. Here’s the product, now enjoy it.” Instead, handoffs should provide teams or clients with the knowledge and tools to operate the product themselves.

Show your clients how to run and maintain the product so they get the results they’re looking for. If you’re handing over to new team members, spend time explaining exactly where the project is at.

Train people in troubleshooting any common or unexpected issues and give people your project management best practices so they know how to get the most out of the product.

Let your clients know about any potential unresolved issues they may run into.

Finally, get a formal sign-off document from your client that states that all deliverables have been met.

2. Create a closeout contract

All projects have multiple contracts associated with them. Think about all the contractors, suppliers, and teams you worked with along the way.

Check that all of these contracts are closed out and that everyone reviewed and accepted all the contracted project deliverables.

3. Close contracts and ensure you’ve been paid

As you review project accounts and contracts, make sure you’ve paid all your suppliers and contractors. You also need to make sure they’ve been paid for any unexpected additional work like overtime or other resources.

Make sure your clients have paid you too and settled all relevant invoices in a timely way. To streamline this process, consider utilizing accounting software to send timely payment reminders and keep track of outstanding payments.

4. Update project documents

Once you’ve reviewed all your deliverables, objectives, budgets, and scopes, you need to update all of these documents and sign-off on whether they were completed or not.

5. Run a project retrospective/post-mortem

There’s always room for improvement no matter how well the project went. Where things didn’t run to plan, use them as an opportunity to learn and improve future projects.

Look back over all your scope documentation, goals, deliverables, and outcomes. Analyze where things went well and where the project fell short of expectations.

Engage with the rest of your team to identify their thoughts on the success or failure of the project.

Once you know what could be done better next time around, store all of these lessons in a central place that’s accessible to all team members.

Planio is another great option for storing lessons learned. You can create custom fields in tasks to reflect your process and learnings—such as “impact” and “recommendation”—as well as a “lessons learned” tracker to store all your learnings in one place.

Example of an issue containing lessons learned

This way, lessons can quickly be found and implemented in future projects.

6. Explain what happens next

This project probably won’t be the last time you work with certain processes or towards specific deliverables. The next time you’re working on a similar project, you’ll want a record of what went well and what needs improvement next time.

Explain to other team members and stakeholders how you’ll be storing the project’s data and processes and how they can access them in the future.

7. Ask for feedback

Next, ask clients, stakeholders, and team members for feedback.

Depending on how many people were involved in the project, you might choose to hold focus sessions or send out surveys asking for specific feedback. If you can execute both methods, you’ll be able to get some more general ratings along with personalized detailed responses.

Stage 3: Update reports and roadmaps

Aim: Dig into project data and update your product roadmap.

Following the review stage, it’s time to pull together all of your fresh insights and update your roadmap for future projects.

1. Put together a close-out report

A close-out report should summarize the project for senior managers so they can analyze its impact. This report should be an overview of the whole project from start to finish, its goals, whether you met them, initial risks, budgets, and overall outcome.

To follow along and fill out on the way, use our Project Closure Checklist and Report.

Include the following points:

Putting together a close-out report

Once you’ve created an in-depth close-out report send it to the senior management team and stakeholders so they can sign off on it.

2. Update your roadmap based on what you’ve learned

Using your close-out report, update your product roadmap with any necessary changes. Learn from any mistakes and implement fresh strategies to avoid making the same ones in the future. Make any changes to your process and usual project strategy

3. Take a moment to celebrate

Last but not least, show some appreciation to your team for all their hard work and dedication!

Make sure they know how valuable their contribution was. Try sending each team member a personalized note thanking them for their hard work. Alternatively, think of some creative gift ideas such as a home office kit or gift card to a local restaurant.

Does ‘closing’ a project mean it’s a success?

Project closure is an official way to ‘finish’ the work you’ve been doing. But completion doesn’t always equal success.

Don’t forget to take a step back from the administrative aspect of project closure and ask some of the bigger questions:

  1. Did you meet the goals and objectives?
  2. Are the stakeholders/clients happy with what you’ve built?
  3. Did you deliver the project on time and to budget?
  4. Was it worth the time and effort?

Project management is about more than just following steps and processes. It’s about shipping products and features people love to use.

However, you work, make sure you keep your user’s needs front and center as you judge the success of your work.