Everything has an end, and that includes your business projects. Signing off on a project is not as simple as closing the file and declaring that everything is done. To achieve a clean completion, you need to handle the sign-off phase like any other project phase – with planning, structure and control.
A Project Is Not Over Until Everyone Knows It
The project lead may believe that the project is over, but this does not become a reality until the client agrees. This usually takes the form of a sign-off sheet that all stakeholders sign to signal the end of the project. The sheet confirms that the project has met the required standards, which is important for triggering payments that are due under the contract and limiting the organization's liability for further work.
Without formal sign off from all the project's stakeholders, the project becomes a never-ending story. Everyone may have different ideas about the shape of the deliverables and whether they have been achieved. In the worst case, the project could carry on (and on and on) well beyond its original scope and timeline, which ultimately costs the business money.
The Formal Sign Off in Project Management
The process itself will depend on the nature of the project. A two-week revamp of your employee onboarding procedures involving only internal stakeholders might require a quick sign-off project email to shut down the project. A 12-month, $2 million organizational change project for a major client, on the other hand, will require a lot more activity, including document handovers and ongoing support activities.
Generally, you should take what you need from the following process:
- Organize the project documents.
- Prepare the final report.
- Distribute the sign-off sheet.
- Transition remaining items to a to-do list.
- Review your lessons learned.
Organize the Project Documentation
There's a fair chance you generated a plethora of documents during the project, both electronic and paper. Now is the time to organize your research, reports, plans, presentations, time logs, results and everything else into a logical format that can be archived, retrieved when required and used for follow-up activities.
Be sure to label the documents properly. For external projects, you'll be transferring the document files to the client. It's therefore likely that nonproject people will be using them in the future, so you need to make it easy for them to find their way around the system.
Final Report and Presentation
The final "report" is the act that officially announces the end of the project. The word "report" is used loosely, as it may take the form of a written document, a presentation or even a product such as a live website.
The content of the final report essentially is the result of the project. How was the project objective achieved? What benefits did you generate? What costs were incurred? What difficulties did you encounter, and how were they resolved? What are your recommendations for further action? If the project was successful, then you probably don't have to give too much detail for your audience to discharge the project. Unsuccessful projects may require considerably more feedback and reflection.
The aim of the final report is to get everyone to agree that the project is finished. You may be able to wrap that up in a single presentation or email exchange, or the client may need a period to review the results and compare them with the original objectives. As the project lead, it's a good idea to agree on a timeline for when you can expect an official project acceptance.
Distribute the Sign-Off Sheet
This is the most important part of a project sign off, as it serves a number of purposes:
It shows that the stakeholders have accepted the project –
in other words, you've done your job.
It triggers payments under the terms of your contract.
It starts the clock ticking on any guarantee period or any period of post-completion follow up you've agreed to provide.
It protects you legally in case there is any dispute about the work performed.
It allows you to bill an additional rate for any work the client asks you to perform after the sign off.
* It allows you to start on new projects and opportunities.
There's no magic to the form of sign-off sheet. Type "sign off project template" into a search engine, and the results will return dozens of examples. The document is usually just a single page containing the project name or milestone, date delivered, client/ stakeholder name, a declaration that the deliverable is approved and – the most important part – the client's signature of acceptance.
Deal With Any Remaining Activities
Depending on the nature of the project, it may not be practical or realistic to expect every last activity to be completed at project sign off. A web development project, for instance, may require final proofreading and ongoing updates.
To guarantee the completion of the project, it's essential to transfer these residual activities, no matter how small or insignificant, to a schedule or to-do list that forms part of the sign-off sheet. Be sure to allocate responsibilities and deadlines to these activities so everyone knows who is accountable for them. Otherwise, they may fall off the agenda.
Reviewing Lessons Learned
While not an essential part of a project sign off, it's a good idea to follow up with a lessons-learned meeting involving the entire project team. No matter how well the project went, there is always something you can learn from it and use to your advantage in future projects.
Consider what went well, what went badly and where the pressure points were. Were the right people in the right job functions? Did everyone have the resources they needed to perform their duties? Did the initial project kick off email to the client set the right objectives and expectations? Were your project documents thorough and accurate? Was the schedule realistic and achievable? Use the lessons learned to update your protocols for the next project.
Sign Offs Are Not Just for Project Completion
For large-scale projects, it's important to get a sign off for all project deliverables and milestones and not just at the project's end. For example, it would be sensible to secure a sign-off sheet in each of the following situations.
All Project Deliverables
Have the client sign off on the:
- Initial project proposal.
- Statement of work and project schedule.
- Planning documents, design concepts and the like.
- Achievement of any milestones laid out in the project schedule.
If the client asks for work that's different from the job specified in the project scope, then it's important to get sign off for the change request. Most companies use a change order request document to process these changes. This document outlines what additional or different services you will perform, how many days or weeks the changes will add to the project schedule and what the additional fee will be. If you don't get changes signed off, then there's no agreement to pay for them.
For projects that involve technology solutions, you'll need the client to sign off after testing the solution. This confirms that the client has used and tested the technology and that it is bug free and works with the client's other systems. Without this sign off, you have no come back if the client later claims that the system is not working properly.
The final sign off is your project close. It should be smooth sailing to get this sign off when all other deliverables have been completed and accepted.
- Instead of paper-based sign off procedure, send an email message. For example, using Microsoft Outlook, press the "CTRL/N" keys to create a new message. From the "Options" menu, click the "Use Voting Buttons" toggle button. Select the "Approve;Reject" option. In the "Subject:" field, type a short description of the project you want the email recipient to sign off on. You can insert additional text, graphics or documents. Click the "Send" button. Your recipients receive a mail message with the directive to "Vote by clicking Vote in the Respond group above." Click the "Tracking" button on your original message to see who has approved and who has rejected.
Jayne Thompson earned an LL.B. in Law and Business Administration from the University of Birmingham and an LL.M. in International Law from the University of East London. She practiced in various “Big Law” firms before launching a career as a business writer. Her articles have appeared on numerous business sites including Typefinder, Women in Business, Startwire and Indeed.com.