The case for closure

December 2009 » Columns » INSIDER'S VIEW
We often hear of our need for "closure" after a traumatic incident. From a psychological perspective, closure (not a clinical term, by the way) represents a point at which we can move forward emotionally from such an event. Rarely does this definition coincide with the project-related concept of closure: the formal close-out of the endeavor, from training the end user to disbanding the team and documenting lessons learned. But given the emotional roller-coaster that many firms have experienced, perhaps the psychological definition is just as appropriate.
Jason Burke, P.E., MPEM

We often hear of our need for "closure" after a traumatic incident. From a psychological perspective, closure (not a clinical term, by the way) represents a point at which we can move forward emotionally from such an event. Rarely does this definition coincide with the project-related concept of closure: the formal close-out of the endeavor, from training the end user to disbanding the team and documenting lessons learned.

But given the emotional roller-coaster that many firms have experienced, perhaps the psychological definition is just as appropriate. After all, many managers use the term "postmortem" to describe the process. For many in fact, this year has perhaps fostered more emotional attachment to projects, whether internal or external, which makes closure (the project kind) that much more important.

Internal projects are those undertakings that are focused on improvement or change within the organization. Examples are software implementation, new processes or procedures, or a specific business development effort. Though usually booked as overhead, training, or marketing, these are projects in every sense of the word. A specific team is assembled to meet a particular goal, after which a process or product is incorporated into the everyday operation.

No matter how high our hopes may be for success, there will inevitably be projects that don't meet their objectives. Maybe that new market didn't pan out or the layoffs didn't reduce expenses enough or the new software just isn't doing the job. What lessons are you taking away from these experiences?

Unfortunately, with great emotional attachment comes great potential for bias. Many people have staked their careers on the outcomes of single projects, and failures are painful in more ways than one. The subconscious effort we put into spinning them with blame, excuses, or other evasive rationalizations only serves to mask the root causes and prevents others from learning vital lessons.

As your firm wraps up the year, I challenge you to take a hard look at all the things you expected to achieve — whether they were successful or not. It's easy to say, "It cost too much, took too long, and didn't work," and move on. Instead, consider some of these deeper project parameters:

  • Were all of the objectives met?
  • What unexpected circumstances arose and how were they addressed?
  • Did you have the right people working on the project?
  • If successful, are new policies or procedures required for future work?
  • How are you applying new knowledge as you move forward — starting today?

For example, consider that marketing effort you started late last year. There was an urgent push to develop new business, test out a new location, and attract new clients. A few managers were tasked with cold-calling, networking, and seeking referrals. How did it work out? If you beat the odds and brought your workload back up, are you retaining the successful policies and training additional staff in how to do it in the future? If unsuccessful, do you know why? Did you properly assess risks, individual capabilities, and markets? If not, what are you doing to get back up to speed next year?

Remember that though you've invested in a project, it's not just about the specific objectives. You've invested in your staff's experience, knowledge, and insights for future endeavors. Even if the project was a failure, don't throw good money after bad by ignoring valuable lessons or by just moving on to the next thing without a proper close-out. I have found many firms simply want to get 2009 off of their calendars. The psychological desire to move forward and forget the past is a strong one. Resist the temptation to simply proceed without properly closing out your projects. Today's loose ends could end up being the rope just long enough to hang from tomorrow.

Jason Burke, P.E., is a project manager in Billings, Montana. Find additional information at http://pmug.wordpress.com.

E-mail comments in care of bdrake@stagnitomedia.com.


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