Project Assurance - 7 Critical Factors
Richard Mulder expands on the steps involved in a Project Assurance Review and asks whether your operation could benefit from an overhaul
during the limbo of lockdown.
In our last article, we spoke about the strange times in which we find ourselves and the benefits of utilising the present moment to prepare for post-COVID project activity.
We introduced you to Project Assurance Reviews, a process which critically assesses the health and feasibility of a project and proposes measures to close any gaps to unify the project performance moving forward.
In this article we take you through the 7 critical factors Siecap applies in their review process which ensures project readiness and viability.
1: Choosing the place and time for Project Assurance application
Depending on a business’s approach, they may be running a two year or five year strategy that captures projects within their pipeline up for consideration. Typically, internal reviews start at portfolio level when senior executives begin the decision-making process, how they fill that pipeline, how money is allocated and what return on investment is expected.
Unfortunately, at this point many organisations do not undertake an independent assessment through a review process; quite often the pipeline ends up filled with pet projects and not the projects that align the business with its strategy. It’s a critical stage when there is often the temptation to focus on short term immediate benefits without challenging what the project is actually going to deliver long term and asking how it integrates within the suite of projects within the rest of the business.
Project assurance, could start at project selection ensuring the business cases supporting those projects that make the initial grade will align with organisational strategy and have the highest possible chance of delivering project success.
The scale of the project has a significant impact on when Project Assurance reviews are undertaken. Larger organisations with more complex projects may apply the review several times, say, for example, at the gating of the feasibility phase or definition phase. They might repeat it at execution and follow up with a peer review post execution.
With smaller projects there might only be one review at the point where the project gates from definition into execution (after the analysis, feasibility and design process is done). At this point, the critical component to challenge is - are we set up for success?
Project Assurance reviews have the flexibility to be undertaken throughout the project lifecycle and can be scaled on the requirements of the organisation, project size and complexity.
2: Project Assurance Independence
This factor addresses the issue of conflict of interest, something spelled out clearly in the Prince2 manual.
Imagine engaging the services of an architect to create a new building. When the project is completed and you wish to test the effectiveness of the design, engaging the same architect to complete the review would be madness. You would approach a reviewer, independently of the project, to objectively evaluate the design.
The same is true with project assurance. Project managers and those in support roles will undoubtedly work effectively whilst the project is in process but are too involved to review objectively. They are, after all, being asked to review their own work! Another pitfall worth avoiding is asking project managers to carry out a project assurance review of another project manager, an exercise which can lead to tit for tat activity and unnecessary competitiveness between teams.
Having an independent reviewer avoids these pitfalls and adds a different perspective towards the project, maintaining an unbiased, objective view of a project’s status.
3: Project Assurance Experience
Quite often organisations think that having someone with an auditing background is best suited for a Project Assurance review. However, contrary to this notion, project assurance experience relies on strong knowledge of project function and the ways in which component parts of a project interconnect. Project functions overlap, one part being reliant on another and may be midway as a project gates to the next phase, so this is not a cut and dried linear process. In addition, the ability to identify risk and potential exposure, even though a project may appear compliant at a particular point in a review, is vital. The Government sector has recognised this and engages industry independent experts that first need to undertake Government approved training in order to perform any type of project assurance review.
Expert project assurance reviewers, like those at Siecap, have a strong, broad knowledge base and an understanding of international and Australian standards coupled with a holistic picture of project structure, governance structure and program management, including decades of experience as functional project management professionals. Their role is to constantly adjust the lens on a project, so the individual parts are not viewed in isolation. Whilst a project manager or SME might, for example, sign off on project compliance, they are not always considering the impact on the future phase of the project.
Siecap Project Assurance teams pride themselves on providing the wealth and breadth of experience, and the ability to jigsaw all the pieces together to provide the ‘big picture’.
4: Clearly Articulated Assurance Scope / Terms of Reference
Each time a project assurance is undertaken, the terms of reference (scope) must be established before the review begins, in order to clearly articulate the intent of the exercise. Depending on the phase of a project, the terms of reference will be tailored to capture specific 'in phase' requirements as opposed to a complete all encumbering review.
To illustrate, Engineering Discipline will be reviewed at definition and again in execution. However, at execution phase of a Civil / Construction project, a project assurance review would not be looking at the quality of an Integrated Basis of Design as this would be done within the definition phase. At Execution, the integrated basis of design would have needed to be incorporated within the project execution plan and form part of the engineering management plan.
Once the Terms of Reference are created, both the Project Team Leader and Review Team Leader would need to sign off on this, so the review is not derailed.
The reviewers would typically look at:
Projects are bench-marked against either an internal or external standard for each discipline area, and part of the reviewer’s job is to ensure standards are identified and being met. Consistency in bench-marking can also help streamline compliance and prevent a fragmentary approach across different areas within the same project.
5: Clearly defined Timeline and Project Assurance Milestones
There are typically five time segments to a project assurance review which neatly align with the Milestones.
The 5 Timelines and Milestones explained:
6: Communication through the Project Assurance Process
Communication can be a challenge to manage, as the more lines of communication open the more discrete messaging and perceptions need to be aligned; you wouldn’t want the review team talking to every single person within the project team.
As illustrated, as you add a single person into the mix the number of communication channels increase exponentially.
A structured approach for Project Assurance Reviews on larger scale projects would include Functional Assurance Reviewers and Project Team Functional Representatives for each discipline. There would be a Lead nominated for the Review Team and another Lead for the Project Team allowing communication to be funneled between these two single points of contact. For evidence clarification, it’s advised that communication between functional Assurance Reviewers and their respective project team representatives are implemented. However, the role of the Leads enables them to formalise and monitor any queries/suggestions which are logged and reviewed. When responses to queries are closed, they too are logged along with supporting evidence providing clear articulation of resolutions. This formalises the channels of communication and allows the workforce to engage in the process.
Obviously, smaller projects would have a scaled version of this process, though the linear progression of actions would be similar.
7: Project Assurance Outcomes Accountability
The outcome formalises the Assurance Work-paper into a report which outlines how the project currently measures up to the relevant standards. It highlights the positive practices of the team and identifies whether the project and the team are set to deliver on original intent. This is followed by a list of gaps identified by the Project Assurance team, and a series of actions, referenced against a standard, which will help to address said gaps. The report will also be used by the organisation to feed into the project learning repository. The report itself pushes for accountability ensuring any identified actions are date assigned to get the project in line with the recommended standards.
At this point, the Project Assurance Review Process is complete, leaving the client with a number of options. They might simply choose to pick up the baton and run with it, using the report to guide their project governance. They might engage Siecap to work alongside them to enact the recommendation or simply provide ongoing ‘health checks’ to guardian the project.
If you would like more information regarding Siecap’s Project Assurance Reviews or the process itself, please feel free to contact me, Richard Mulder, directly at firstname.lastname@example.org