Humans are hardwired for blue-sky thinking – which is great in many contexts but often creates turmoil in the project delivery world and can lead to serious financial consequences. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to improve your project assurance and start guarding against expensive mistakes.
We’ve all worked in environments where project updates show nothing but blue skies, green lights and budgets running squarely in the black. Everything is perfect – or is it?
Recognising when such updates are over-optimistic – or hiding the truth, can be difficult, which is why project assurance has become so popular. It helps organisations of all sizes, and in all sectors, protect themselves against expensive project failures by adding third-party independent advice to assist in augmenting internal practices, expertise and training.
What’s at stake?
The best providers of project assurance come well versed in project and programme management, but they’re also well armed with an understanding of human psychology – in particular, why it’s so hard to share bad news and why some project managers find it hard to say, “I don’t have all the answers, can I have your help please?”
This innate tendency can see projects spiral out of control to the tune of millions. In fact, according to a worldwide PMI survey, “Around $1million is wasted every 20 seconds collectively by organisations around the globe due to the ineffective implementation of business strategy through poor project management practices.”
That’s roughly $2 trillion dollars wasted a year – ouch!
Taking steps to protect yourself
The flip side of such a shocking statistic is that we still have plenty of room to drastically reduce the risk and significantly improve results. With the right approach, project assurance gives you an expert set of eyes and provides the transparency you need to make smart decisions – even when the news is difficult to swallow.
Take these steps to improve your project assurance today:
1. Minimise risk and build confidence from the start
The most critical and effective way to protect your investments is to commence effective assurance before the project even kicks off, setting your initiatives up for success. An independent and expert review prior to formal approval should ensure:
- The project’s scope, objectives, expected value and benefits are clear
- There is a shared understanding of what will be delivered
- There is visible and experienced leadership support in place
- The work is structured in a way that enables effective tracking
- That an appropriate level of upfront planning has taken place
- The work is resourced with the right capabilities
- The right metrics are included to ensure ongoing transparency
- Risk is highlighted, and effective risk management is in place
- The funding/business case is robust (or highlight the shortcomings)
- Ongoing assurance plans are included in the lifecycle.
The findings and actions from this initial review are provided to the sponsor and project manager to enable any remedial actions to be taken.
Importantly, however, these same findings should be followed up in subsequent assurance activities to ensure recommendations and risks have been appropriately dealt with (see step 2).
2. Keep checking your project’s pulse
A project and its environment are not static – and treating them as such is a recipe for failure. Expectations change, assumptions become invalid, unknowns become known, new stakeholders get involved, and external events create unforeseen circumstances. We’ve all seen how these factors can completely derail a project and threaten its success.
- Revisit earlier findings to determine if remediation has been actioned
- Determine if remediation has been effective
- Ascertain true ‘current’ status and determine emerging risks/challenges
- Review status reporting, metrics and management information for accuracy, clarity and efficacy
- Revisit original expectations to determine any significant variation and revalidate viability where applicable
- Provide/present revised findings and recommendations.
Missed opportunity note: It is an unfortunate fact (consistently validated via globally accepted research from every credible source) that approximately 20 per cent of projects should be abandoned when assurance reviews and key metrics identify:
- A clear theme of deterioration versus improvement
- Increasing risk and issues
- Cost and time blowouts
- Benefit erosion that invalidates commercial viability.
However, less than 5 per cent of projects are actually brought to a close.
While the reasons for perseverance of a lost cause are almost always due to positive intent, individual passion, hard work and a determination to avoid failure, the harsh truth is that the courage required to ‘pull up stumps’ and admit defeat, outperforms positive intent by a factor of 20 times+ in commercial terms.
Thankfully, these negative facts and statistics can be virtually eliminated by:
- Prioritising effective planning above the fastest path to funding approval
- Focusing on the right resources and capabilities over the cheapest or most readily available
- Baking in appropriate ‘checks and balances’, such as assurance, from the outset.
3. Balance the bad with the good – and communicate the truth
An essential skill for project managers is to learn how to communicate when everything isn’t on track. A few tips for managing project stakeholders include:
- Solid foundations – Spend time with your sponsor/key stakeholders upfront, be clear about the approach, agree time commitments and align on the right planning, speed, capability and quality balance required for success
- Timing: The sooner the better. Raise risk early and ensure sponsors and other key stakeholders are fully aware of the impacts if unaddressed
- Root causes: Plan time to identify root cause of risks. If you don’t know what it is at this moment in time, be honest. However, you should always have a plan for how you will figure it out
- Clear and concise – Ensure management information is clear, concise and outlines the impacts of decision latency
- Not on your own – Plan for independent reviews and other quality assurance activity throughout, otherwise you are on your own
- Delivery strategy: Doubling down tactically when the overarching strategy is flawed will only exacerbate the situation
- Set the context: Even the right news with the wrong context can come off poorly meaning the provision of ‘bad news’ needs to be carefully positioned
- Seek help: Get key stakeholders to help you with difficult problems and ensure you never present problems without also providing information regarding the root cause as well as options to resolve
- Keep learning: Those who fail to acknowledge their mistakes are doomed to repeat them.
4. Stay focused on your end goal
With the COVID-19 pandemic forcing many organisations to pivot their sales strategies, it may feel like the goal posts are continually moving. But no matter how many times you need to reposition or re-strategise, keeping outcomes and objectives in sight is paramount to project success.
In addition to conducting regular project health checks and staying honest when communicating with stakeholders, take a page from American management guru Peter Drucker: “If you are clear about your destination, it becomes easier for you to decide about your journey.”
What comes next?
Getting better at project assurance won’t happen overnight, but using the steps outlined above will help your organisation move in the right direction. With so much riding on getting it right, however, it certainly pays to seek expert help and advice.
At PM-Partners, we understand that in our increasingly fluid operating environment business agility remains more important than ever. That’s why we’re helping organisations change faster, better and with less risk with our proven assurance methods. From set up for success to health checks and post implementation reviews, and our five-stage review process, we offer a tried-and-tested solution to boosting rates of success and return on investment. What’s more, these services are now further enhanced by our Continuous Assurance approach.
Unlike one-off engagements, Continuous Assurance combines regular assurance findings with insights from capability assessments across best practice areas such as Agile, PMO and change management. This data is then used to drive an ongoing roadmap of prioritised improvements, which treats the root causes of poor delivery performance and provides the potential to break the cycle of project failure. And the best part? We’re with you every step of the way.
This article is an updated, expanded version of an older piece: Why good project assurance can drive better business outcomes