Phase 5 - Closure
The closure phase of a project is probably one of the most important, yet neglected, phases of the Project Management Cycle (PMC).
In my last blog, I mentioned how we often forget to inform our community stakeholders about how we’ve done and what the project has achieved. Unfortunately, one of the challenges in project closure is that the project manager and other senior staff often tend to start looking for jobs when we hit the 6-month finish line. It’s pretty natural and agencies are often frustrated and seeking ways to keep their valued staff to the very end. If those key staff leave, you are losing much of your institutional memory from the project before you can even report and close effectively.
Plan to Close before you even Start?
The closure of a project should technically be designed when you're in the planning phase, as part of your Work Breakdown Structure. You would design what is called “an exit strategy.” In that strategy, you would draft a disposal plan for all your assets (releasing project resources), set up a means of accounting for all your purchases and assets during the project cycle (accounting for damaged, lost and depreciated assets), fulfill contractual obligations (close out agreements with your vendors and partners), and create a transition plan for your staff (especially if you need them to the end of your project). The exit strategy would be reviewed with your donor but it is only a draft and is subject to change during the course of the project and depending on the nature of your closure (see below, types of closure).
Involve your stakeholders
An exit strategy - or perhaps you may call it a project disposition plan - should be communicated to all concerned stakeholders. Assets of a project can be political and I've had numerous examples in my projects where the government and local partners have had their sights set on receiving those invaluable vehicles, computers and other high-worth assets. Remember that the donor has the final word on where those assets are transferred (they own them after all!). It can be very disappointing and even unsettling during project closing if those expectations are not mitigated early in the project cycle. In the case of community stakeholders, it is even more important that there is ample coordination and discussion with those people who have a stake in follow-on activities or sustainability elements that will continue the project outcomes after the initial project is closed. During this phase, I always recommend to have a retrospective conversation with the community participants and leaders (or elders) to assess project results and to look ahead at what is needed to continue those results (which should be part of the sustainability strategy of the project).
The Closure Pit-Fall
The most frequent pit-fall experienced by implementing agencies is not setting up the exit-plan when they are setting up all the other processes in the design and planning phase of the project. Planning – while not particularly difficult - is very time-consuming and so certain activities – like closing plans – often get left until well into the project - or even until the last year. Usually, about 6 months to the end of the donor agreement, you will start implementing your closure plan in order to gradually transition out most of your operations by the last couple of months. If you have negotiated effectively with your donor, your agreement will already provide for up to 3 months of closure in which you will have a skeleton staff of essential human resources (e.g. PM, Finance Manager, M&E Manager and maybe one specialist). You will compile the project endline data and prepare the final report (incl. final budget) in the last several months.
More than one type of closure?
In case you're thinking that closure just means shutting down the project, we better look briefly at the various types of closure you might encounter.
Forced Closure: There may be a project that is forced to close before its termination date in the donor agreement. This may be due to significant changes in the environment, reductions in the components of a project, a change of direction - or of mind! A donor may at any time decide to alter the course of their funding, should they determine it is for the good of the community and it is spelled out in the agreement. It does not happen often but it can, if conditions warrant such a change or the scope is significantly altered and impacts the time component of the project. The closing plan (at planning phase) is extremely important in this case, to ensure that project activities can be wrapped up in the shortest possible time without having a negative impact on the community stakeholders.
Continued Project: There are projects that do not close but are continued for another phase or even indefinitely. I was Director of a project that had actually run for nearly 23 years before I arrived, having been continuously renewed by agreement of the donors involved. The results were so impactful for the communities and country that it was deemed to be a solid investment into the country's infrastructural program over 3 decades. In some cases, you may find a project that has 'add-ons' to the project components and these are also significant enough to warrant the extension of the project. A final closing plan must always be ready to be implemented, of course, but it must be regularly updated in this type of project scenario to ensure it is up to date and ready for execution.
Failed Projects: Project can sometimes reach their full timeline but ultimately fail. The main thing to avoid is to get the infamous PC 'blue screen' pop-up on your project! That is the equivalent of a project management surprise and there's nothing you can do except 'shut down' and hope for the best!
However, if the nature of this failure is understood well in advance, the project may be closed earlier or transitioned to another project. If you are well within the implementation phase the donor will often NOT continue activities to the normal closing period of such a project. Naturally, there is no point in spending further resources if the project is unrecoverable.
In other cases, the failure may not be known until the final report is submitted or an end-line evaluation is conducted. Implementing agencies should be ready for donors to demand the extension of project activities but without donor funds involved. In those cases, the agency must be able to reanimate essential components and staffing of the project in order to carry out those activities demanded by the donor, at their own cost. If the assets of the project are still available, they will need to be disposed of in the normal manner but only after agreement with the donor and upon completion of all activities by the implementing agency.
Learn from Failure?
It should be appreciated that project failures are not always a negative thing. Many learnings can come from this and the implementing agency should seek to position that failure effectively, as well as to avoid having the project and its staff suffer negative attention as a result. A learning exercise can be executed, with all stakeholders, to determine the root of the problem(s) and look at ways these can be avoided in future and/or turned around in other projects. The important thing is to always keep the donor up to date on anything that may impact the deliverables of the project or affect the use of funds. Donors are generally very understanding in cases of unavoidable challenges or Force Majeure and will often work with the implementing agency to resolve them. Naturally, avoidable events, fraud or intentional damages are not viewed positively.
Normal Closure: Fortunately, this is one of the more common reasons for closing a project! It typically means the project has completed all of its activities. Your project may have received any number of no-cost or cost extensions from the donor during its lifecycle but once the objectives have been met - it closes. In many cases, a successfully closed project means the successful launch of a new service or product, an innovation that may be taken to scale, the creation of a new system or an upgrade of an old one. In international development projects, successful closure often means that the project outputs are now folded into a communities' ongoing activities and they will continue to promote and replicate the outcomes achieved.
Emotional goodbyes in closure
It is unfortunate that even normal closures can be difficult, despite being well-planned. It can be very hard on the staff of an agency, as they have forged strong relationships with project staff and now they are being let go at the end of the project. Longer and larger projects often contribute significant benefits to an implementing agency's capacity, structure and culture, creating a gap when the project has to be closed. It doesn't matter how many times a project manager discusses the closure of the project, from personal experience I can say that it always comes as a surprise. There are so many expectations and hopes within the staff body and it is never easy to say farewell to an important piece of the agency's portfolio, partnership and staff complement.
Let the grant games begin!
During the project closeout, you'll have a lot of things to do as a project manager. There are many different types of documents to turn over, final meeting minutes, various closure reports, asset inventories to dispose or liquidize, partner agreements to close, stakeholder discussions to manage, storage facilities to set up (for digital and physical documents) and your all-important final report to the donor (both technical and financial). Most importantly, you will be capturing lessons learned and best practices for future reference and reuse.
I'm Dr. Phil Tanner, founder of The Grants House. With over 25 years in project management and grants acquisition - both in headquarters and in the field - I am pleased to share my experience with clients all over the world. Whether you're a small agency or a big one - you can compete for those scarce donor resources - and at The Grants House we show you how! I hope you have enjoyed these past 5 blogs on the Project Management Cycle (PMC). If you want to learn more, why not try out our proprietary training courses today? You can rent them for the low, low price of CAD $4.99.
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@The Grants House, 2023