When’s a project really over?

handshakeIf you are looking for a fun ice-breaker at your next project management networking event, ask delegates the question “How do you know when a project is completed?”. Most will likely start responding with the tried and true answer to all questions – “It depends”. Keep digging, and you will likely be rewarded with an amusing tale or two of projects that wouldn’t die.

Recognizing that there can be challenges with closing projects, especially when there is an expectation gap between the customer and the project team, are there any universally applicable criteria for closing a project?

Let’s consider the following two plausible exit conditions.

  • When the money runs out. One would think that a lack of funding would force work to cease. However, with the exception of agile projects with a fixed funding constraint, or a true time & materials contract, just because the money has run out doesn’t mean project work ends. All large consulting firms can point to at least one case study of a project on which they continued to work long past the time when the customer had stopped being invoiced.
  • When scope has been delivered. Completion of deliverables is not the same as acceptance of deliverable. I’m sure we’ve all survived projects on which all deliverables were handed over but work continued because of some lingering requirements or quality gaps.

I’ve found the following two conditions to be reliable when managing external projects.

  1. All project closure terms have been met. Of course, this does require due diligence early in the life of the project to nail down those terms & conditions to a sufficient level of detail and to get the customer’s and your organization’s acceptance of those.
  2. You have been formally notified by either your customer or the “right” decision-maker within your organization to stop work. Of course, if the first condition hasn’t been met, you may have to exercise early termination terms in the contract.

But what happens in the case of internal projects where the roles of customer and delivery team are within the same organization?

You could institute formal terms & conditions just as you would for an external project. However if there is dissent over a project’s completion, enforcing those terms could escalate into a case of “cutting off your nose to spite your face” as the inter-departmental conflicts could generate conflict and operational impacts that last well beyond the life of that one project.

So what have YOU found works consistently for internal projects?

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Has project management jumped the shark?

82d765c7_jump_the_shark_signWhen I first got into this profession over fifteen years ago, other than in consulting or engineering firms, it was rare to find titled project managers in most companies. Of course, that doesn’t mean that project management wasn’t being practiced, it just happened to be the responsibility of staff with a different title.

Formal credentials such as those administered by PMI, APMG and other associations existed, but were not well known. I recall that when I took my PMP certification exam, there were only one or two Prometric testing centres in the whole Greater Toronto area which were able to administer that test, and when I showed up to sit for the exam, the staff had not heard of it and tried to convince me that I must have got the name of a Microsoft certification exam such as the MCSE wrong!

The Guide to the PMBOK’s second edition had recently been published and it was still considered a featherweight reference at under three hundred pages.

How times have changed.

Most companies with meaningful investments in project work retain at least one project manager on staff. Bulk purchasing sites such as GroupOn frequently offer discounted deals on PMP certification preparatory courses. And at just under six hundred pages, the Guide to the PMBOK has capably demonstrated its versatility as an exercise dumbbell.

In general, such widespread increase in the profession’s profile is positive. Yes, there are still companies out there which need to be educated on the value of disciplined project management, but their numbers are dwindling year over year. Sustained salary growth for experienced project managers has proven that this profession is not just a short-term fad.

But there is also a dark side to this mainstream adoption.

I’ve seen an increase in the number of people who are really not qualified to manage projects aspiring to achieve (and in many cases, successfully achieving) credentials such as the PMP. And, on recent home renovations, I’ve had more project managers attempt to close the deals than ever before. While these renovations might meet most definitions for project work, the activities performed by the so called “project managers” have usually ended once the contract gets signed.

So what’s the issue?

Unqualified practice and usage of the project manager title dilutes the credibility of the profession.

When everyone is a project manager, no one is a project manager.

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A project is not a person

imageThe analogy of medicine gets used frequently when we evaluate how our projects are doing. We speak of triaging projects which are in trouble, keeping others on life support, and performing postmortems when a major issue occurs or a project fails.

Adopting this approach can help to reduce the risks of narrow focus. A phyisican knows that a patient’s health is based on more than just a single metric (e.g. body temperature) so it is important to evaluate projects on more than just their cost performance.

Your family doctor balances the short and long term using a combination of lagging (e.g. weight) and leading (e.g. blood pressure) indicators to assess not only how healthy you are now, but what your longer term prospects will be.

We do the same with our projects and portfolios.

Counting the number of projects completed on time gives us a lagging indicator whereas measuring the number of projects which achieve a critical early milestone on time serves as a leading indicator of portfolio schedule health.

Another practice we have adapted is the use of baselines. A doctor knows that no two patients are the same, so capturing a baseline of key metrics helps them recognize when something is truly off. On long running projects, measurements of velocity, team or sponsor satisfaction can provide us with an early warning system specific to that project.

However, it is critical to avoid anthropomorphizing our projects. They are, after all, investments. If they will no longer deliver business value, we need to reduce or cancel future investments.

Periodic re-evaluation of a project’s expected benefits as well as the impacts it will make on the organization, society and the environment ensures that we don’t take the analogy of patient health too far.

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