There may be trouble ahead…

Project Audits and Health Checks

If you’ve been involved with the management of projects for any appreciable length of time, you’re likely to have encountered this situation.

It’s the end of the regular project management meeting.  The project team has eloquently provided an update on the progress of their project to their senior stakeholders and everything is running smoothly.  Maybe we could reduce the frequency of these meetings since everything is going so well?  Honestly, there are no clouds on this project’s horizon.

Except that by the next meeting, some serious clouds have moved in.  The project Gantt chart has been abandoned and the risk and issue log is obsolete due to the magnitude of the issues.  The new issues came out of nowhere and seem destined to derail the entire project.

How did this happen?  How could the outlook for the project have changed so significantly in such a short space of time?  How was there no warning?

Certainly, in any complex human undertaking there are far more ways for something to go wrong than for it to go right and a ‘out-of-blue’ project issue can strike at any time.  But, in my experience, it is rare that the issues that derail a project appear so swiftly.  They usually accrete slowly and inexorably over time.

There are a number of factors at play here:

  • Psychology: The project team may have been reluctant to flag up concerns or may have down-played challenges for fear of being the bearers of bad news, especially if their future livelihoods rely on them being good at delivering projects. These concerns and challenges, therefore, only appear when their significance becomes too great and they can no longer be ignored.
  • Process: Often, when things are running well, it is easy to apply project management techniques in a superficial, ‘light-touch’ way. Perhaps the plan might not be as detailed as it might be, the scope less thoroughly defined and monitored and the risks not comprehensively identified and managed.  Indeed, if things continue to go well, then there is little real consequence to this light-touch approach.  Unfortunately, in project-land, things don’t always go to plan.
  • Experience: For a team that is new to projects in general, or that is attempting something for the first time, it may be difficult for them to identify all the potential issues that may occur and to put in place effective strategies to mitigate them.
  • Optimism bias: This is the well-intentioned, but potentially misguided, tendency of the project team to believe that everything will go according to plan and to either underestimate the severity of any project issue they encounter, or to overestimate their ability to resolve the issue.

So, what could you do to determine whether any of these factors are at play on your projects?  There are two related techniques that can help – project audits and project health checks.

Project Audits

The main aim of a project audit is to review the project’s compliance with project management methodologies, whether these are in-house or industry best practice, such as PRINCE2.  Usually, these audits are part of the standard package of governance services offered by an in-house PMO and will be scheduled into the usual calendar of portfolio management.

The typical sorts of questions that a project audit seeks to answer are:

  • Is the scope of the project being managed?
  • Is there an up-to-date project plan and is the project on schedule?
  • What is the current financial state of the project and is the budget being managed effectively?
  • Is there evidence of risks and issues being managed?
  • Have the correct project artefacts (such as initiation documents, quality plans, etc.) been produced?

The answers to these questions should provide a degree of assurance to the project sponsors that the project is being managed in a controlled and consistent manner and should highlight any issues or concerns that the project team have.  It is unlikely, however, that a regular, brief Project Audit will uncover any deep, hidden issues that the project team are currently unaware of, or any risks that they may have overlooked.  This is where a project health check comes in.

Project Health Checks

Health checks are undertaken less frequently than project audits and are generally unscheduled.  Many times, the health check is carried out if it is felt by the project sponsors that the project is off-track or is at risk of heading in the wrong direction.

The aim of the health check is not to look at compliance with project management standards, but rather to look into the detail of how well is the project running.  Of necessity, a health check looks into the project at a deeper level, is more thorough and takes longer than a project audit.

A project health check is usually undertaken by a third-party external to the project organisation and proceeds via a review of project documentation and interviews with key project stakeholders.  Using a third-party allows an independent view of the project to be obtained, free from many of the psychological factors noted previously.

The review team may also contain subject matter experts who, by virtue of their particular experience, may be capable of identifying risks and issues and providing guidance that otherwise would be unavailable to the project team.

In contrast to a project audit, the kinds of questions that a health check seeks to answer are:

  • Is the project still likely to deliver the expected benefits? If not, how has the benefits profile changed?
  • Is the reported status of the project actually supported by the evidence from the documentation and from stakeholders?
  • Is the approach being used by the project likely to deliver the project successfully? If not, are there better approaches that could be taken that would reduce risks?
  • Are there any significant risks or issues that the project team has not identified?
  • Are there any ‘people’ issues that may adversely affect the project, such as lack of appropriate skills, poor team morale, etc.?

The findings of the health check are usually documented into a formal report for the project sponsor, which will also include recommendations about how best to take the project forward and ensure its success.

If you would like to know more about setting up project governance, undertaking project health checks or any other project, programme or PMO service, please don’t hesitate to contact us.