How to end a project
I’m not good at endings. Actually, I really suck at it. At work as well as in my personal life. I’m not that great with beginnings either. I’m only good at now.
Beginnings and endings are just so, complicated. The uncomfortable-ness of getting to know each other, not sure about the political, religious, and any other views of the team. Whether it’s acceptable to say ‘f*ck’ (which on average I don’t but when I’m really angry I do) or if it’s ok to wear slops and a summer dress to work.
Endings are even worse. Because then you know what you’re saying good bye to. With beginnings, at least you don’t yet know whether it’s going to be a good, average or bad experience ahead. With endings, you know what you’re losing. Good or bad, it leaves a void for while. An emptiness.
I once had a friend who understood that I can’t say good bye. We agreed that we would never say good bye, because we both know how painful it is. We had a secret sentence we shared that meant “I love you and I miss you already and you will always, always, always be my best friend.” It sounded like this: “See you for tea tomorrow morning!” Both knowing tomorrow we will be in separate places and we won’t see each other.
Unfortunately, these kind of good byes (and beginnings) don’t really work well at work. The most successful projects I worked on had strong beginnings and strong endings. Clarity and focus at the start. Resolution and a sense of completion at the end.
So how do you have a strong ending for a project, sprint or release? A big milestone?
Here’s some pointers on what works for me:
1. What have we achieved?
When I was at school we received a grade report and certificate to mark the end of the year. It was something tangible that shows the context of effort invested over a long period and your individual progress. It showed visually the skills you mastered.
Big projects happen in small increments. It sometimes takes years with people coming and going as the project progresses. Often, we forget how much we’ve done and how hard we worked. Taking the time to review the achievements is extremely motivating and satisfying.
The tangibility of the report card or certificate at school is a form of closure that helps us move on. Tangibly represent the project achievements within context.
Visually draw the system as it was at the onset of the project and indicate the improvements and additions.
2. Draw a history map
I once saw an excellent theater production that deeply touched me. It started by representing humanity as we are today — bombarded with sensual inputs, busy beyond what is good for us, and technology keeping us from connecting with those around us. The show progressed by going back in time, until the beginning, when it was quiet, slow, connected and peaceful. It had an unexpectedly powerful effect on me —this simple moving back in time. It subconsciously reminded me of what live should be like. What I secretly yearn for.
After this show, I systematically slowed down, quit social media and started working less and living more. To this day I’m amazed at the effect that this moving back in time had on me.
By virtue of looking back — whether in our personal lives or on a work project — we get closure which allows us to move forward and remind us of our intent.
A history map is a good way to start a project, but also a very good way to reflect back on a project and show all the ups and downs at the close-down of a project. It’s a simple technique to acknowledge each person in the team and give them time to reflect.
Draw a timeline on a board with key dates. Invite each person in the team to add a dot on the line when they joined, and elaborate on the highs and lows of the project as well as the major milestones throughout the project.
Let the map do the talking. Allow the story to unfold as each person shares their involvement and learning.
3. What have we learned?
Another great way to end a project or collaboration is to have a show-and-tell where each team member gets a few minutes to share or present what they have learned or contributed to the team during a project.
Maybe they did something small like clean up all the bugs that’s been lying around for year. Maybe they did something bigger like introduce the use of mock interfaces to streamline integration testing. Maybe they introduced a new technology or applied an old technology in a new way.
Give each person the opportunity to showcase how they contributed to the team and celebrate their success.
4. Share your biggest failure
Another, more personal approach that requires a high degree of trust in the team is to share failures. There is something extremely rewarding in sharing what went wrong. How you failed.
Actually, there’s a whole movement called f*upnights where people are invited and applauded for sharing their failures.
When you are able to share how you messed up it makes you human. Approachable. Normal.
We too often look at role models expecting them to be perfect. That is like expecting all women to look like super models and all men to be super hero’s.
In real life, real people make mistakes. No one is perfect. Greatness comes from having the courage to try again after you’ve failed. Admitting that you made a mistake. Owning it. It’s not about the mistake. It’s what you do after the mistake that matters. When you own your mistakes, you’re accountable and you’re help-able.
People have much more respect for those willing to admit their vulnerability.
5. What’s next?
Finally, the last part of a strong project closure is to decide what’s next. Maybe it means that the project is officially finished and all the resources are free to walk away. Maybe it is identifying an area that might result in a new, different project in the future. Maybe it is a definitive rest period before a future, unkown project.
The key is to be explicit. Clearly state what the future holds, even if it means you don’t know. Expectation is everything.
Until next time that is.
See you for tea tomorrow morning!