Following on from our previous blog on why assurance matters more than ever for project success…
A question we’re often asked is how to get started and introduce project assurance management practices into an organisation, which has previously no experience of this, in order to develop traction and understanding. From our own experience a good way is to introduce it in a low-key manner; for example, as a ‘health check’ or ‘critical friend’ review looking at a particular project perhaps because it is proving to be a ‘problem child’, or because it has specific implications for the client or for the delivery organisation.
Language matters here so it helps to position it as a project ‘health check’, ‘taking the heartbeat’ of a project, or looking at it within the focus of continuous improvement. The emphasis here is not so much on project efficiency (‘when was the project plan last updated?’, ‘how do you run your risk register?’ or ‘are you on budget for delivery activities completed?’) as on project effectiveness. So, providing confidence to the project and other governance bodies about the way the project is being delivered, but also the likelihood of realising anticipated benefits.
Key to this perspective is the opportunity to look to the future of the project as well as providing retrospective assessment. Reframing project assurance from ‘compliance’ or ‘policing’ to receiving ‘free consultancy’ support from experienced project practitioners and other relevant specialisms who provide backing for continual improvement and professional development, helps to reposition the mindset associated with assurance.
In regard to resource for assurance, who is best placed to undertake project assurance whether in-house or external personnel? Responses to this question vary and are typically dependent on the context and terms of reference, as well of the level of assurance required - ‘light touch’ through to ‘deep dive’ - all of which will help set the requirements as to the necessary skill sets. So, perhaps:
- Those who have direct experience of the type of project being undertaken, and/or
- Those who have particular expertise associated with the terms of reference of assurance activities and/or
- Any project practitioner who might provide a different perspective.
Certainly, those undertaking assurance need a degree of objectivity, which can prove difficult where those providing assurance work in-house with those receiving the assurance. Further, there is a balancing act between being brutally honest and presenting findings and recommendations in way which is more palatable and likely to be positively received and considered.
Jerry Madden, Associate Director at NASA, observed that, “Reviews are for the reviewed and not the reviewer. The review is a failure if the reviewed learn nothing from it.” This plays very strongly into behaviours and culture. Assurance is not an academic or tick-box exercise: we are all too busy to waste time on activities that don’t add value and, similarly, without the project or organisation taking action as a result of the assurance activities, there will be no positive change.
The real value of assurance is in whether conversations and recommendations are discussed, considered and – where appropriate – acted upon so providing the opportunity for continual improvement and feedback loops. Assurance recommendations imply action is needed and assume that budget, time and resources can be made available for this.
Professional and organisational learning
Typically, assurance capability is considered in technical terms but assurance also plays to behavioural and social skill sets. Communicating recommendations and subsequent actions from the review and how these have supported the project can help build backing at the senior level. Much of the focus on assurance practices is on building the right team with the relevant skill sets.
However, there is the equally important consideration about how to receive the results of assurance at the individual project practitioner level, at the project organisation level and at the enterprise level. How are you receiving the messages being provided: not just the obvious messaging and information, but also the more nuanced and subtle connotations?
Providing and receiving assurance enables learning at the individual, project and organisational levels. Often organisations use the same pool of in-house talent to provide project assurance, who also deliver projects. Here, a temporary in-house team is brought together for a specific reason and time, then disbanded allowing the team members to go back to the day job. This provides the opportunity for assurance as a form of reflection, review and professional development for assurance practitioners and for project practitioners; also for the wider in-house project community, project governance bodies and delivery organisation.
Notably adding junior project practitioners to an assurance effort helps develop their own practice. In particular, the five dimensions identified within Value of assurance management practices research - governance, methods, integration, cadence, specialism - are levers to help develop project practitioner, project organisation and wider enterprise learning.
We recognise that assurance management practices are maturing as they are increasingly used across the project practitioner community. So, what do ‘good’ assurance management practices look like for your project and organisation? Certainly, assurance management practices should be specific and intentional, relative to needs and available resources; equally, they should be planned for and integrated into timelines. Finally, assurance does not operate in isolation; it also serves to support learning for the project practitioner community, the project and the organisation.
This blog was co-written by Sarah Coleman and Dr Andrew Schuster
Dr Andrew Schuster is a partner in PwC's Risk Assurance practice. He has a national responsibility for the development of PwC Canada's Transformation Risk and Advisory practice and the delivery of solutions to key clients. He has over 30 years international experience researching, designing, delivering and reviewing major organisational transformation programmes and projects.