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Get ahead of project complexity and maximise the value of assurance

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This is the first of a series of blogs discussing the need for a change in how we assure projects and increase the chances of project success. This blog focusses on why we consider traditional project assurance as outdated.

Old foundations

Over a hundred years ago, American engineer Henry Gantt invented the eponymous bar chart. This has since underpinned the professionalisation of project delivery. For context, it was introduced around the same time as the world’s first public radio broadcast.

Fast forward over a century to the present day and the complexity of our projects has increased exponentially. This complexity is characterised not only by technology, but by pressing environmental factors, societal impact, workforce implications and politics.

All the while the Gantt chart (which by some definitions would qualify as an antique) remains a foundational element of waterfall project planning. Yes, we have agile methodologies that accommodate some of the complexity growth in the profession, and we have hybrid mixes of waterfall and agile. However, you’ll be hard pressed to find a high-value, high-complexity project that does not attempt to distil itself into the bars of a Gantt.

Now, this is a potentially unfair exposé of the Gantt chart. But it does serve to remind us that there are foundations of our profession that were built during simpler times. These foundations have been shaken by very public project delivery issues, rocking stakeholder support and confidence while testing the resolve of funders, financers, investors and users.

Assurance as an opportunity

This is a problem for projects. Damaged confidence threatens to reduce investment appetite and can lead to disillusioned stakeholders frustrating delivery. This frustration can be the result of explicit action (such as pressure groups), but it can also be unintentional. Project boards, for example, may turn to greater levels of micromanagement and projects might suffer the associated inefficiencies. Funding may be drip-fed due to mistrust. Investment portfolios may decide to limit exposure by sequentially undertaking projects rather than delivering concurrently. People may avoid job opportunities on a project to avoid negative connotations.

There is a capability that has the potential to correct this: project assurance. Project assurance is the process of providing confidence to stakeholders that projects will achieve their objectives for beneficial change.

Assurance is not a new thing, but it does need a step-change to fulfil its role in shoring up support and confidence in today’s and tomorrow’s complex projects.

Traditional project assurance

Assurance activity has typically been undertaken in response to two events in a project’s life.

The first event is an investment decision. These decisions typically occur at multiple points in a project’s life cycle and coincide with stage-gates. Funders understandably desire assurance that the project remains a worthwhile investment, and a flurry of activity is undertaken to provide this confidence. A key issue with this is the tendency to have an investment decision point prior to entering the delivery stage followed by an absence of assurance until just before completion. A further issue is that the complexity of contemporary projects often means that there are multiple, isolated investment points for project elements. Ultimately, these project elements have outputs which need to operate in an integrated manner. Segregated decision making introduces risk around the alignment of these.

The second event is a project failure. This may be a significant cost overrun or schedule delay. This results in the project board commissioning specific assurance into what went wrong and how to remedy the issue. By its nature, this sort of assurance is reactionary and does little to mitigate degradation in stakeholder confidence. It is damage limitation.

When these types of assurance activities are undertaken, they’re usually limited to assuring compliance with existing (read: ‘traditional’) methodologies and the quality of this compliance. It is rare that assurance is commissioned to look outside of the box and identify where potential limitations to methodology may be, and the impact of these.

Evolving the assurance approach

The upshot of this is that traditional project assurance is too infrequent and irregular to fulfil its prophecy of a confidence builder with stakeholders. It is also limited in its focus, meaning that the potential value of assurance to a project’s leadership in the early identification of issues is not achieved.

There is a solution, but it requires an honest appraisal of performance to date to fully understand. In our next blog, we will look at common issues across complex projects that can be helped by an evolved approach to project assurance. Then, in our third blog, we will explore how project assurance can get ahead of project complexity to produce insights and support successful outcomes. Be sure to join us on 1 February 2023 as we host a webinar to discuss how assurance can evolve to meet the needs of today’s and tomorrow’s project demands.

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