Closing or terminating a project, what is the difference?

by Sylvie Edwards

Potato, “Patate” they are all the same, aren’t they? Well, yes, for the legume apart from the language thrown in. So, are closing and terminating a project/phase the same thing? Do we proceed with both in the same manner? In this article, I will discuss the subtle yet confusing nuances brought about by the interchangeable use of the terms closing and terminating a project. People often tend to consider both the same, but there are some distinctions and differences that need to be addressed by a project manager and the team and must therefore be planned for in some way.

Let us start by saying that if you have ever had a project terminated, it would be fresh in your mind and would certainly be something you would always remember. I have not had many, but the two that did are flashing in front of my eyes as we speak. The literature on this topic is murky at best and confusing to most hence why I am tackling it with a sort of logical approach.

PMI® (Project Management Institute), in its sixth edition of the PMBOK® Guide, has a close project or phase section, which is dedicated to “establishing the procedures for investigating and documenting the reasons for actions taken if a project is terminated before completion.” Yet the process is meant to “finalize all activities for the project, phase or contract” on page 123. Right there, the confusion starts. Are we talking about projects that finished “fine” or not?

So, when are we to use the term close versus terminate? It seems that the consensus on that is not set across all the articles and literature that I reviewed. When you ask people, most will tell you that closing implies a proper or planned conclusion which must also mean a semblance of success. On the other hand, the term termination implies abrupt or unplanned end and therefore dubious on the success aspect.

To clarify this, we will need to look more closely at the definition of ending a project and that of project success and/or failure. Let us go back to PMI® for a second. They have, in earlier pages, given us a clue. According to the PMBOK® Guide on page 5, for a project to end it must reach one or more of the following conditions:

  • The project’s objectives have been met or achieved
  • The objectives will not or cannot be met
  • Funding is exhausted or no longer available
  • The need for the project no longer exists
  • The resources (human or tangible) are no longer available
  • The project is terminated for legal cause or convenience

You will notice that the term “terminated” is used only once in this list, while all other options gave an end or something that prevented it from reaching that end.

Does this help us in our search for a clearer understanding? Well, not really.

What I do believe is that the term “terminate” is really a bit radical. It brings up visions of guillotines, Arnold Schwarzenegger, or pest exterminators in full warfare gear.

A better way of looking at this might be to substitute the terms close and terminate with end. The end. “Finito,” done… Sounds simple, try it, it works. We see it all the time at the end of a movie, and there is no mistaking that the movie is over for anyone. Although now, movie theater people have brought in those flashback or flash-forward clips, which makes everyone stay a while longer in the theater, but I digress.

If a project were to use the term end, it would then mean an end to the work regardless of if the project/phase has or has not met objectives. At this point, the conditions under which this end happened should be documented. We still have to satisfy the need for lessons learned to be captured and a project closure report to complete our documentation cycle. It does not leave any doubt about this documentation and final approval than being the formal closing of a project. It also does not leave any doubt to the fact that regardless of an abrupt or willing ending to any project that proper closure is absolute and must be done prior to moving onto the next assignment.

These formal conclusion activities are invaluable to any organization to ensure that we “remember” in months or years to come under a new administration or manager why the project ended or, more importantly, how it ended.

Regardless of the term you use in your organization, it is important to remember that ending, closing, or terminating any project should not be equal to dropping and running. All projects must be remembered… but not necessarily fondly. 


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