Programme health check
What are the five key questions that programme sponsors should be asking about the condition of their project?
Systematically gauging the health of a project on a regular basis is a relatively simple and inexpensive exercise to ensure that the programme adheres to the principles of delivery. Waiting until something has gone wrong before taking action can be damaging and often injurious in terms of scope, time and cost. Here are five key questions that all programme sponsors should regularly ask themselves to ascertain the health of their project and to pinpoint where processes have gone wrong.
1 - Are the right leaders, with the right skills, behaviours and attitudes, in place?
Leadership is primarily responsible for enabling team members to contribute effectively and efficiently towards specific programme objectives. This often goes far beyond task-related deliverables, however. It requires the leader to have a clear vision, clarity in reason, a practical approach in scheduling achievable milestones, and the ability to attract, inspire, and manage a talented team.
If a leader isn’t suitable, the team may well under-perform, miss strategic opportunities and become disengaged with the project. This often culminates in failure to deliver project objectives and the programme then dissolves into disarray.
Successful programmes, then, require the right individuals with the right skills in the right decision-making roles. This includes having appropriate breadth and depth of experience related to the project, as well as the ability to allocate resources, analyse and identify goals, plan and estimate, and be highly result-orientated. But, most importantly, leaders must be able to inspire confidence at all levels of delivery processes, otherwise poor engagement – and low motivation and productivity – may result. Essentially, the leader is the core of the programme.
2 - Does the team describe objectives and business benefits in the same way?
Possessing clarity of purpose enables a team to focus on how to achieve specific project objectives within constrained resources. This requires excellent communication so that all team members understand the obvious and underlying business benefits and expected scope of a programme.
In addition, performance reviews must be agreed, assessed and communicated regularly to ensure consistency of, and commitment to, project objectives, as well as verification of targets. Failing to systematically assess these objectives and how to achieve them can result in major communication and performance gaps opening up.
Regular assessment can also increase clarity of purpose and enable project aims to be realigned to current business needs. Communication is essential for effective business operation, and clarity of purpose leads to better, more effective communication. This structure can be imposed internally through top-down authority from leadership, or through a third party with specialist project-delivery knowledge. Both methods require the right leaders to be in the right decision-making roles, however, to ensure consistency of business objectives throughout the team and project life cycle.
3 - Are decisions made quickly and results achieved on time?
Large companies need to have a robust corporate structure, underpinned by good conduct and sound judgement from senior personnel, in order to facilitate decision-making within the programme and the wider organisation. This environment enables successful strategic governance that increases accountability, avoids business crises and inspires confidence in the team for achieving milestones to schedule.
Yet these practices and control mechanisms must be tailored to each project, and agreed and established at the very beginning, as well as reviewed regularly throughout the programme’s duration, if they are to be effective.
Leadership must be able to manage the project with the right level of oversight, handle any emergency that might occur and create value for programme sponsors through sound investment and innovation. Nothing should affect the project delivering to schedule.
4 - Does the team do what it says it will, in the time agreed?
Consistent success in programme delivery is only achieved when the entire culture of a company supports project delivery capability and programme performance goals. If the organisation does not have a delivery culture and the right management in place, then leadership will be lacking. A culture of delivery should cascade from the leadership. Team members must take accountability for actions and tasks, as well as execute responsibilities in a timely manner, but this initiative must come from the leadership. If people don’t see project processes as being priorities for senior personnel, then they will become disinterested and disengaged. When the culture is missing, it is very hard to get something delivered within that organisation.
5 - Do team members do things in the same way and use their time effectively?
All programmes need a clearly defined set of processes for planning, monitoring and decision-making, all underpinned with the appropriate control, direction and use of resources. These processes need to add value and support for the team. Therefore, they must be personalised and reflect the requirements of the business that they serve. Businesses cannot afford to make bad decisions. Effective leaders must be able to understand, justify and rapidly change their decision-making processes, due to the demand for business agility, in order to deliver a programme. In addition, team members must be able to quantifiably measure their progress and performance against a control group. By having smart processes in place, people can transparently understand which phases are not being optimally handled and where quality of work is slipping due to resource constraints. The alternative results in short-term divergence and long-term delivery delays.
A programme health check is a reflective learning exercise that examines a snapshot status of activity in order to identify which areas are going as planned and which need attention. These include objectives, scope, approach, plans and management, as well as quality of resource, programme governance and team commitment. A health check enables programme sponsors, among others, to determine how well the programme is performing in terms of objectives, to identify issues that can be lost amid day-to-day activities and to assess the actions necessary to resolve any concerns.
The five questions above highlight common issues that often arise when a project health check is being conducted. While they can be performed when a programme is in trouble in order to identify what needs to be fixed, by systematically carrying out these checks, programme sponsors can detect any underlying discrepancies that may otherwise go undetected or ignored.
A programme health check can also reveal non-task deliverable issues such as personnel non-compliance, identification and analysis of best practices used, and project manager competence development. It is also much more costand time-efficient to pre-emptively identify problems before they occur, thus ensuring that all elements of the project are kept on track for successful project delivery. All of this knowledge can then be applied to future projects.
This article first appeared in the 2015 Autumn edition of Project Journal.