This is the third and final in a series of blogs discussing the need for a step-change in how we assure projects to increase the chances of success.
In our previous blog, we shared some of the common issues arising from the complexity of today’s projects, and how traditional assurance was not designed for these.
Today’s complex projects necessitate the definition, design, delivery and integration of many different, but interdependent, disciplines. This produces a vast amount of information, and project managers need to filter out the noise so that a huge number of decisions can be made in an effective and efficient way.
Interdependent disciplines often create tension between the need to move forward and the need to develop detail – this tension is rarely maintained optimally. Different disciplines often require multiple delivery methodologies, and these are rarely integrated in an effective way. The volume and complexity of decisions can cause inertia, especially if there is an absence of clear delegations and escalations.
This presents a huge opportunity for the profession. In this blog we look at what a step-change in project assurance might look like. What we’ll see is the need for assurance to go on a journey of vindication, evolving to become a critical and respected feed of regular intelligence to decision makers.
Assurance activity is often seen as a distraction and even a threat. This perception isn’t that unreasonable. For most complex projects we see, assurance is commissioned largely in response to two events: a major gateway (such as for funding or regulatory approval), and project failure.
Gateways are generally accepted by projects as necessary but are invariably demanding and daunting events. Project failure is, obviously, undesirable. But if these are the two events that are commonly and predominantly associated with assurance, there will always be a ceiling on its potential.
Projects introducing a more comprehensive assurance framework should recognise this perception. A project-wide approach to educating stakeholders on the benefits and reasons for assurance should be adopted, in addition to regular communications on the benefit that assurance is adding. The goal should be to have assurance recognised as an ever-present aid to decision makers.
Enabling decision making
The recognition of assurance’s value in decision making needs to be earned. There is a significant and evidenced opportunity for it to make decisions more efficient and more effective.
Integrated assurance and approvals plans (or IAAPs) identify key decisions that are required across a project and sequences supportive preceding and succeeding assurance activity. This isn’t a new concept. IAAPs were made a mandatory requirement for all central government major projects in 2011. However, they are rarely undertaken in a way that adds value to the performance of a project. Public and private projects should consider a robust IAAP process that involves breadth of leadership and management.
If done right, it drives programme-wide clarity, rationality and alignment regarding what decisions need to be made, how they are to be made and the associated assurance requirements. Effort can be directed with confidence into activity that supports the plan, increasing true productivity. IAAPs help to validate assumptions (such as schedule and resources) for decision processes, which are phases of delivery where we often see a material failure of optimistic assumptions. As a key product, the IAAP can provide stakeholders with reassurances that greatly reduce interference.
Meaningfully maintaining an IAAP drives positive behaviours. Decisions at all levels become approached with more diligence. Assurance moves from being seen as a tick box exercise to being a vital source of supporting information. Decisions are, by default, considered in the context of the wider project objectives.
Assurance as intelligence
Assurance can produce a regular stream of intelligence in addition to supporting planned decisions. Good progressive assurance can support regular management meetings with an objective perspective. Progressive assurance may take many forms, but it is underpinned by three key elements.
The first is the need for leadership to actively sponsor the role of progressive assurance. A key outcome of this is integrating with project governance, ensuring that space is protected for assurance discussions and that intelligence is acted upon.
The second is having an appropriate assurance capability within the project. While the exact roles and responsibilities of assurance teams vary by context, invariably there needs to be an individual who is charged with the coordination and functional leadership of assurance. The assurance capability should be empowered and encouraged by leadership to act with healthy and constructive dissent; when this is done right, respect will grow and management action will be more robust.
The third is taking a risk-based and outcomes-based approach. Anchoring progressive assurance activity to a project’s risk profile and business case ensures that it’s focussed on what is important to the project. This enables assurance outputs that directly support the proactive mitigation of threats and maximisation of opportunities.
Assurance presents a significant opportunity for projects to improve their decision making, minimise their risk profiles and increase the probability of successful outcomes. Having supported some of the most complex projects in the world pivot their assurance frameworks to do this, we know that it is possible with a clear, considered and committed plan.