The last mile: how to get your project across the finish line

Are we there yet?

That last mile of the trip to Grandma’s house seemed to take forever. So do the final measures of a major project. Instead of a cathartic sprint to the finish line, too often the closing stages of a team effort are the absolute worst.

Milestones slip. Quality of work suffers. Nobody seems to have the enthusiasm to keep going. Everybody is simply ready to be done.

If the last mile of your project work feels more like plague than pleasure, you’re not alone. Here’s a four-step cure for the last mile blues.

Change the way you think about “progress”

Accomplishment spurs more accomplishment, and feeling stuck leads to more inertia. That’s why Michael Fritsch, president and COO of consultancy Confoe, recommends breaking down tasks into small, discrete steps which can all be closed out in a matter of a few days or less. In this scheme, project managers do not ask workers for percent-complete figures on each task, but track only these three possible states:

  • Not started
  • Started
  • Complete

Being extremely granular about the individual steps in a project forces the client and project managers to be more aware of what they are asking for. It takes boil-the-ocean tasks off the table, and means contributors are never asked to invent percentage-complete figures which are often inaccurate.

“The rollup of ‘complete’ vs. ‘not started’ tasks will get you a much more accurate percentage-complete figure for the entire project than you get by asking people to estimate how ‘done’ they are with a three-week long task,” Fritsch says.

Plan in multiple dimensions

As a project nears completion, new contingencies and dependencies from cross-functional groups come into play. Whether it’s a manufacturing partner stepping in to produce a prototype run of a new product or a quality assurance team taking over the ongoing support of a new software product, these new stakeholders are vital to closing out a project. If their own constraints and planning requirements are not accounted for in the early stages of a project, it can create delays later on when they are not ready for a seamless handover.

Think horizontally, not just top-down, and ensure that these parallel stakeholders are not only informed of the project’s progress, but fully prepared to step in when needed.

“These relationships are supposed to be part of the ‘risks and dependencies’ of any project statement, but too often people think of this as the ‘excuses slide’ and don’t think enough about the other people who are going to become involved,” says Kris Duggan, CEO and co-founder of BetterWorks. “These cross-functional arrangements are necessary to truly deliver on-time and on-schedule.”

Stay disciplined

Everyone involved in the final stages of a project wants to find the quickest route to the exit. That’s part of the problem. Adherence to discipline and procedure slips. Sloppiness leads to more delays because the exact procedures which are meant to protect stakeholders are being pushed to the side.

“In that final 20 percent of a project, you’ll start to see that people don’t go through good change management processes,” Fritsch says.

Ignoring budgetary constraints, skipping out on change orders, and letting deadlines slide may seem like the best route to victory when the end is in sight. But those processes exist for a reason—to ensure that work is done in a timely and effective manner. If it was important to do in the beginning, it’s still important at the end.

Be deliberate about calling in the closers

Burnout and fatigue are genuine risks near the end of a project, and high-value contributors are often needed to help sell the next big project. There’s no shame in bringing in a junior staff member or a new hire to take over the spit-and-polish steps, but that transition will be much smoother if it is part of a deliberate plan.

“From the beginning, you need a personnel management plan for those contingencies,” Fritsch says. “How quickly you can bring new people in makes a difference.”

Post by Jason Compton

Jason Compton is a writer with over 15 years of experience covering marketing, sales, and service. Based in Madison, WI, he is a regular contributor to Direct Marketing News, previously served as executive editor of CRM Magazine, and has been published in over 50 outlets.