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How a new support role could boost project and programme assurance

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Group Concentrating

As one wit once put it, if you steal ideas from only one person, it is called plagiarism. If you steal from several people, it is called research. So, in the spirit of good research, I want to consider how non-project professions provide confidence to stakeholders that their deliverable will achieve their objectives.

The project parlance for providing this confidence is ‘project or programme assurance’. This discipline seeks to provide an independent and objective oversight of the likely future performance of major projects. It has emerged as a response to consistent problems in major projects and the need to provide confidence for stakeholders of technologically advanced, high-capital or high-risk projects.

However, it is just that – a discipline, not a specific role.

Is anyone really responsible for project assurance?

In PRINCE2, project assurance is the responsibility of the project board members. However, if they do not have enough time or expertise, they can assign this responsibility to other individuals or groups, so long as those people are independent of the project manager.

PMI’s 2015 Pulse of the Profession report comments that “less than two-thirds of projects and programs have an actively engaged executive sponsor”. The implication is that assurance doesn’t actually get delegated to anyone. This can lead to more widespread disengagement, often coupled with poor distribution of responsibility. All this leads to a culture of blame when projects fail to meet their goals.

When no one has responsibility for project assurance, stakeholders cannot receive confidence that projects and programmes will achieve their objectives.

Gary Poole, chair of APM’s Project and Programme Assurance SIG believes that, “This is an area where you need to bring in the right knowledge in the right way. It’s a topic that needs to be looked into to see how we ensure good assurance. If you don’t undertake assurance, you’ll find out too late.”

Lessons from the legal sector

The legal profession has already considered this challenge, and its solution could potentially be ported into projects and programmes. The role of the professional support lawyer (sometimes known as a knowledge development manager) assists the client-facing teams with a practical working knowledge of their subject, reducing the amount of time spent on learning and research, and so freeing up time to deal with other matters. The role is often filled by a more experienced legal professional.

The professional support lawyer brings personal knowledge obtained from years in the profession and an understanding of the pressures facing fee earners and client-facing teams. They ensure that their practice delivers legal services in an efficient, cost-effective way. Furthermore, other lawyers are more likely to trust and respect someone who comes from a similar background and has relevant experience.

John Christian, a professional support lawyer with over 30 years’ experience in tax law, says: “The professional support lawyer is now an accepted role and career path in all major law firms. Firms recognise the benefit of a role which focuses on collating and distributing best practice and training to client-facing teams.”

How to spot a watermelon project

In a project context, in many large organisations, support tasks fall to the PMO or audit team. But these roles are often not held by experienced project managers. This gives rise to two problems:

  • the PMO or audit teams in SMEs have insufficient credibility to ensure advice and guidance are followed; and
  • these functions have insufficient specialist project management knowledge and delivery experience on which to base insightful recommendations.

Poole accepts that, “Internal audit teams tend to focus on the financials and might not have in-depth knowledge of project management best practice. If you send in an audit team, there is a tendency towards optimism bias, because every delivery manager wants their project to look good. It’s what I call the watermelon project: it looks green on the outside, but if you dig away, it’s red beneath.”

If it works in legal, could it work in projects?

A project support professional, equivalent to the legal example described above, would work with project managers to keep them on top of their game. This role would provide a new career development opportunity for seasoned project managers, allowing knowledgeable and practised professionals to apply their experience and contribute to delivery.

One alternative is that, as part of professional development, project managers might be asked to audit other projects themselves. However, this presupposes they have the depth of experience that comes from many years in the profession.

Providing best practice, practical support to front-line project delivery teams is critical to providing confidence in delivery. If it works for the legal profession, could it work for us too?

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  1. Roy Millard
    Roy Millard 22 January 2021, 10:28 PM

    I absolutely, and unequivocally, endorse the principle that those tasked with providing assurance within project and programmes should understand project and programme management. I running the Internal Audit team in Transport for London, I employed auditor with that knowledge, to the extent that it brought me into some conflict with ivory tower professional Internal Auditors who believed a qualified Internal Auditor could audit anything. However, where I would like to challenge is the implicit assumption that assurance can be fulfilled by an individual. Project and programme assurance needs to be considered as a set of people, processes, systems and functions that improve confidence of project/programme success. It is the satisfactory integration of all those people, processes, systems and functions that can provide optimally-effective assurance. Provision of assurance does not have a single-point accountability. What should have single-point accountability, though, is the task of making that integration work. That person needs to be senior and have authority, but does not necessarily have to have project and programme management experience (although it's good if they do); they just need to really understand assurance.