When you’ve worked in project management for as long as we have, it still confounds us that organisations are not embracing assurance as a cornerstone to good project outcomes. Why? Because the benefit yields of keeping a project on track are worth it.
The research is irrefutable. The NSW Government has mandated it. However despite experts and business often agreeing that project assurance is valuable and essential, why is it that the project assurance talk routinely fails to turn into the walk?
In our 12-year tenure in project assurance, Quay has seen it all: The reasons that projects get off track, the challenges of getting them back on track, and why projects ultimately fail.
When we talk to PMOs and project sponsors, there is very often a conceptual consensus of project assurance as important to success and a mitigation against project failures. The NSW Government, for example, has mandated and invested considerable time and money into build a centralised assurance capability with the Department of Finance, Service, and innovation (DFSI).
So why is the same approach not taken elsewhere and has ‘assurance’ become a dirty word?
Failing to Leverage Project Assurance
Our experience shows that there are two chief culprits as to why project assurance isn’t leveraged more often by organisations: First, a misunderstanding of its real value and second, that despite the talk, the reality is that some organisations and leaders would actually prefer not to really know what is going on under the project delivery covers and prefer blissful ignorance in case it leaves them exposed and at risk of being liable for poor project outcomes.
The problem is that organisations that don’t embrace assurance often find that their projects struggle and fail. Worse still, it is often known that projects are failing – or they are expected to fail – well before they are officially flagged.
Yet project assurance, the one instrument that can provide visibility and be the catalyst for corrective action is not used effectively.
It begs the question: Is assurance and its role in successful outcomes misunderstood?
A Refresher: What is the Purpose of Assurance?
First, let us state what assurance is not. Assurance is not designed to be a witch hunt or an excuse to fire the project or program manager when things aren’t going well.
Project Assurance as defined by the Project Management Institute (PMI) is:
‘… an independent process that assesses the health and viability of a project.’
The PMI goes on to state that the role of assurance is to provide a clear sense of whether a project will accomplish its objectives and if there are significant risks. This is critical for senior stakeholders and executives who have approved the project and who will sign the cheques.
What are the Objectives of Assurance?
Going back to basic principles, the objectives of a project assurance function can include:
- Assessing the risks and strengths of new or existing projects
- Ensuring known requirements for project success are present: Skills, processes, structures and culture
- Providing unbiased, independent evaluation of the project’s prospects for success
- Keeping you firmly in control as the project matures
- Working closely with project team stakeholders to ensure that risks are collected, prioritised, and mitigated
- Identify clear objective corrective recommendations if the project is not travelling well
What does Assurance look like?
Types of Project Assurance activities can include:
- Gateway Reviews
- Start Up Reviews
- Health Checks/Ad Hoc Reviews
- Milestone Reviews
- Benefit Realisation Reviews
- Earned Value
It’s an Investment in Reducing Risk
At its core, assurance is a risk mitigation tool that delivers visibility and transparency on the health of a project. It provides a continuous improvement mechanism to learn, improve, and fee into current or future projects.
Essentially regardless of the type of assurance, it provides a way to reduce corporate and business risk when delivering projects. Examples of these risks include:
- Risk of failure
- Risk of budget / cost overrun
- Risk of suboptimal outcomes including quality of product
- Risk of time overrun – resulting in lost benefits in speed to market, savings banked etc
Focusing on the ability to reduce risk to a project is often key to getting the support Assurance needs. All too often, we have seen companies use assurance instead to hunt out and blame individuals for failures in projects. All this achieves is defensive behaviour, reduces the support for assurance and misses the point that its core benefit is to course correct projects that are off track.
Assurance, done well, can shine a light on what needs to change and provide the recommendations and the opportunities to help make it happen. There are many forms that can be used to implement project assurance within an organisation: Embedded agile, consultative, audits, phase end, quality gates and so on. The key is that not one size fits all.
Elite athletes are a good illustration here: When they are not performing, athletes with the right support systems get detailed and instantaneous feedback from those people in place to support their performance. Metres covered per minute; reaction times; tackles made or missed; heart rate; shots played and missed: You name it, these elements to success can be measured. The ones that excel welcome both the scrutiny and the feedback because it helps them to improve their performance.
Like athletes, no organisation is the same, nor are their challenges. An adaptive approach that best fits the risk profile of the project is best, but the critical success factor is that assurance should be independent to objectively represent the project risks.
Assurance in projects backs the best play
In a corporate or project context, the level of evaluation afforded to elite athletes is rarely available, but if the right level of project assurance is backed with standard best practice measures, it will highlight the strengths and weaknesses within a project and allows projects that are underperforming to course correct before it is too late.
Want to better understand the importance of independent assurance? Contact us here or call 02 9098 6300. We believe that quality thought leadership is worth investing in. Please share our content with your colleagues via any of the links below.
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