A project handover should be simple, right? You reassign a project, and it becomes someone else’s responsibility. In reality, a project handover is more like a game of dominos—one shaky piece and the entire project will collapse.
An efficient project handover process is necessary to keep project details from getting lost in the transition. It also points all parties toward a common goal and provides clarity about the project’s status. Without a clear project handover process, you’ll end up with miscommunication, project delays, stressed teams, and unhappy customers. Pretty safe to say, nobody wants that!
In project management, the handover is sometimes understood as the final deliverable or the closure stage. But a project handover can take place during a variety of situations, such as when you:
- Go on vacation
- Move into a new position or leave the company
- Shift to a higher-priority project
- Get a handover from sales
- Organize a project handover to the client
Depending on the scope, the project handover steps will vary, but preparation, documentation, and communication will always need to be in place for a project handover to run smoothly, no matter the size.
But before we dive into the steps involved, what exactly is a project handover? Self-explanatory? Perhaps. But a reminder is always a good thing.
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What’s a project handover?
A project handover is when you pass on control of a project to another person—whether that’s temporary because you’re OOO or permanent because a new project manager is assigned or because you’re sending deliverables to the client.
Project handover documents detail the essential information someone would need in order to cover your key responsibilities and carry out the next steps. A person taking over the project needs core information documented in a concise way. This sets clear expectations and explains the level of involvement needed once you’re gone (ranging from a very light touch to daily contact). In other words, project handover documents serve as a master checklist and information hub, detailing aspects of the project that are critical to its success.
But project handovers don’t need to be daunting. In fact, too much information all at once can feel intimidating, especially for someone who isn’t familiar with the project or the team. Instead, think of a project handover like onboarding—your goal is to familiarize the recipient with the project in steps until they’re fully ramped up. Simply put, project handover docs provide an honest and easy-to-read account of where the project is, who’s accountable for doing what, and when it needs to happen.
A detailed project handover checklist helps us account for the tiniest day-to-day details of project management we take for granted, like access to drives and documents or contact information for stakeholders. This process has four stages: preparation, communication, check-in if returning, and post-mortem.
Project handover checklist
Step 1: The prep work or the pre-handover stage
The pre-handover stage is mainly about thinking and documenting. Every project is different, and as a project manager, you have unique insight into project details, previous communications, customer preferences, and feedback. Your project handover notes need to capture these nuances, so your handover docs are useful and easy to understand.
You don’t need to set up handover notes in one sitting—and you shouldn’t. Information that stays relatively unchanged, such as contact information, priorities, important dates, file locations, and a listing of staff and/or assigned resources on the project, can be added to your notes ahead of time.
However, aspects of the project that look obvious to you may not be obvious to the next party, like simple but specific requests from a client, should be part of a more thoughtful knowledge transfer. For instance, let’s say a client prefers receiving deliverables through a particular tool instead of your team’s preferred tool. If that’s not documented in your project handover notes, the next person won’t know this.
If you try to quickly write up your notes the day before vacation, you might forget those kinds of details. If you add to your notes incrementally, you’ll be less likely to overlook or oversimplify crucial details.
To be useful, project handover notes need to cover the following aspects:
- Project scope: Include key project deliverables and milestones
- Project schedule: Include resource availability and a clear view of the team calendar, including vacations and float time
- Resource allocation: List your team members along with their roles, project-specific responsibilities, and hours booked for the project
- Resource utilization: Resolve any booking clashes or highlight them so the next person is aware of possible resource constraints
- Project budget: Provide a list of upcoming expenses and a link to the statement of work
- Project status: Write a roundup of everything that’s been accomplished so far
- Project forecasts: Create estimates for workload, resource availability, and conflicting projects
In addition, your project handover notes would benefit from:
- A list of key meeting dates
- Links to past meeting recordings or notes
- Feedback or data from the client
- Links to research material
- Contact details for freelancers or contract employees
- Client’s contact details and preferred method of communication
- Additional details useful in serving the client
Step 2: Communicate with all parties involved
Communication—both asynchronous and synchronous—is key to a successful project handover. A communication plan isn’t limited to internal teams. The goal of your project is customer satisfaction, so communicate with the customer in advance as well.
Communication with the client
In the case of a temporary project handoff, inform the client of your leave at least a week before. Introduce them to the main point of contact who will be your stand-in. If the client knows ahead of time that you’ll be gone, they might be able to adjust plans and minimize meetings or pivotal decisions during that time or delay meetings during your absence.
If you’re leaving the company or moving into a different department, communicate that at least two weeks in advance. Assure the client that their project will remain in capable hands, and introduce the new project manager, if possible.
Ask your client if there are any deliverables they need from you before you leave. Reps for larger accounts may want to have a planning meeting to draft the next sprint or change the dates of meetings to ensure a smooth transition.
If your client is apprehensive at the thought of someone else managing their project, include your stand-in during these early discussions to help build rapport. You could also undertake a basic risk analysis to determine what the client is concerned about, then discuss these points with your stand-in. Together, you can formulate a plan on how the team would work to mitigate these issues.
Communication with internal team members
Once your documents are ready, set up a 1:1 meeting with the project lead and another with the project team. Go over your project handover notes, and leave time for questions and clarifications.
If your handover document mentions someone, make sure you’ve had an in-person run-through to cover what you’re asking from them. In addition, use the RACI matrix to keep team members accountable. RACI stands for Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, and Informed and is an effective approach for improving project outcomes. Simply put, it helps preempt potential issues along the lines of “I wasn’t told” or “I don’t know anything about this project.”
One way to prioritize situations is to think about the biggest risks, such as:
- Not meeting a deadline
- Exceeding the budget
- Missing crucial client updates
Which of these would have the biggest impact on the project? Determine critical scenarios that could affect the project, and then decide how to rank them.
Our handover template includes an “I will be happy when I get back if …” section. This adds clarity for anyone trying to determine what’s most important for project success. If people are stretched for time, it’ll be easy to see where they should focus their energy.
If you only had 25 minutes/week to manage a project, what tasks would you take on as “necessary” to do a good job? #pmot
Step 3: Picking up when you get back
This step is critical for temporary handovers and helps both you and the client get back on track, especially if you’ve been away for a few weeks.
Pre-book a status meeting
Before you go away, schedule a meeting for the date you return to the office and include the people overseeing your work. This official handoff helps you get back up to speed with your projects and gives them a chance to inform you about everything that happened while you were away.
Another significant benefit is it helps ensure you’re prioritizing the right clients and activities during those first days back. When you have hundreds of emails in your inbox, it’s difficult to know where to concentrate your time and energy. A quick review of each project will help you focus on where it’s needed most.
Request updated handover notes
Another way to ease the transition is for your colleague to prepare a set of handover notes for you. Using your original notes as a reference should not only clarify changes that have occurred, but they can also be used as a guide in your status meeting.
Check in with your client
Don’t forget to email clients when you return, no matter how tempting it is to lay low and ease into your routine. It’s professional and courteous to confirm that you’ve returned and you’re once again their main point of contact.
If the client is expecting you to immediately transition to full speed, you may need to reassure them that they are a high priority and then explain that you want to be thorough in catching up on communications related to their project. Many will be fine after hearing that, enabling you to hold off until later in the week after you’ve made a dent in your backlog.
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Step 4: Plan ahead for next time
Don’t forget to ask people for feedback on your project documentation. What was useful? What was missing? Was anything confusing? Use that feedback to continue to improve your project handover template. Plus, these conversations also provide an opportunity to personally thank each person for their contribution to your project while you were away.
Whether you’re a producer, project manager, team lead, or resource manager, handovers will support you throughout the project lifecycle. Having to distill the most critical aspects of your project into a concise guide will ultimately improve how you write documentation and coordinate project plans going forward.
So, while project handover isn’t as simple as literally passing the baton, you can protect your dominos from collapsing with adequate planning and attention to detail.
Use a resource management tool for easy project handovers
A project handover is useful only if it’s completed in time. For this, you need visibility into team schedules and forecasts, so you’re assigning the right work to the right employees. With a resource management tool, this part of the project handover becomes significantly easier and lends efficiency to the handover process.
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