I mean no disrespect here, but my bet is, based on my experience and observation, that you don’t completely finish your projects.
The lack of completion comes on two levels.
You give up before the finish line, and you put the finish line at the wrong place.
What do I mean?
- We set a finish line at the start of a project. It includes process documentation and a picture of a completed project. Yet most project teams disband and move on before all of those final deliverables are met. Might the finish line change a bit once we are working on a project? Sure — but usually we just end at 380 meters (and move on to the next urgent project/race), rather than consciously running through 400 meters to the finish.
- Our finish line never includes capturing the learning from the project itself — to make future activities and projects more effective and successful. If you want truly successful projects, you need to include this inside the project plan — otherwise it will never get done.
So let’s spend a bit of time on each of these situations.
In my experience we don’t finish strong for a variety of factors, including:
Projects are long and grueling. People are tired and are mentally spent as projects, especially big ones, near completion.
Projects experience scope creep. As the project continues, new ideas and small additions to the deliverables always seem to occur. Given this, the finish line seems to continually be in flux, moving further and further from where people see themselves today.
People lose focus on the project. Once most of the effort is done, people are ready to move on, rather than finish strong.
As a leader, we can manage all of these challenges to make sure we do in fact finish our projects at a sprint, rather than a limp.
Here’s what you can do:
- Set a clear picture of what completion is; knowing that if it isn’t in the original plan, it will be difficult to add it later.
- Prioritize and re-prioritize. Scope creep is real and sometimes warranted. Don’t let it grow unabated, and yet look at the suggested additions to the project and make resource decisions along the way. If the finish line changes, communicate the new finish line very clearly (and more than once).
- Keep people focused on the true end point. Don’t let people get restless, and don’t let people start pulling people off for other projects prematurely. Lean through the finish line!
Including Learning Lookbacks
Now let’s make sure we put the finish at the right place — after we have extracted the learning and experience from the project. For our purposes, we will call these learning lookbacks — because that is exactly what we are doing — looking back to get the learning from the project.
We all know how important and valuable reflection is personally, and most of us don’t do enough of it. Just like it takes a conscious decision and effort to do it as an individual, we must create an expectation and process for doing this as a project team. First, the goals of this exercise …
- Learning for the repeat of that project next time. If this is a project that will be done in the future (the budgeting and forecasting processes come to mind), then we want to capture what worked and what didn’t. These lessons need to be documented and reviewed at the start of this project the next time.
- Learning from that project that we can generalize. To generalize our learning is to get the core lessons that we can transfer to other projects, situations, relationships and more. This is truly the more powerful learning that should come from this effort. The lessons will likely be many and perhaps some will be personal — which is perfectly OK.
- Learning how to learn from experience (and that it is expected). This one may not be stated to the group, but let’s be honest — if we want our team members to become learners, we must show them through our actions that it is important and how to do it. Doing learning lookbacks achieves both of those things.
Learning lookbacks give us a tangible place to exert ourinfluence by making sure that, in the glow and elation of project completion, we don’t lose our opportunity to learn from all of the activity, (perhaps pain and frustration) and accomplishment.
Here are a couple of ideas to help you facilitate the process.
- Schedule specific time. This must be done as a separate task, probably as the only objective for a particular meeting.
- Create an open environment. The discussion of frustrations and mistakes must be encouraged and supported — this is where much of the learning will come from.
- Focus on both direct and indirect (generalized) learning. Help people see the two types of learning mentioned earlier and help both surface.
- Celebrate success! The things that went well and need to be repeated need to be identified and celebrated!
Projects are important — and so you need to truly finish them. I hope the ideas in this article will help you get to full completion and get better results.
Projects are too important to not completely finish them, and as a leader, you can influence how and when your projects end — and make the ending strong.