Project Reviews, Assurance and the PMO

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Projects are about risk: we engage in risky activities in order to achieve rewards.  Often we succeed.  But sometimes the risks win, and then our projects fail.

Many of the risks that kill our projects are scarily predictable: the project management literature consistently identifies the same dozen or so causes of project failure.  So we’ve built mechanisms for preventing or mitigating those causes into our methodologies. And our organisations have invested heavily in training and certifications and other means to disseminate these methodologies.  Yet still our projects fail.

Why is this?

The simple fact is that project managers are human. They get overloaded. They overlook key information. They fail to hear warnings from members of their teams. They’re subject to a range of cognitive biases. In all sorts of ways, they lose touch with what’s really going on with their projects and the surrounding context. That’s when their projects begin to fail.

Many of the techniques of project management are about keeping in touch with reality. Clear plans make it more obvious when we’ve gone off course. Upfront thinking about potential risks makes it easier to recognise and deal with actual risks when they materialise. And so on. Even so, it’s all too easy for people to avoid painful realities until it’s too late to fix them.

The Role of Project Reviews and Assurance

Reviews and assurance help us understand what’s really going on with our projects. They give us an independent perspective that cuts across the oversights and biases that we’re all prone to. They do this by providing three types of information to project stakeholders:

1) Project managers - Project managers need a clear view of what’s happening on their projects so they can manage them effectively. Reviews provide an independent view of status and of how the project is performing against “best practice”, thus helping the project manager to identify any gaps in their own understanding.

2) Project sponsors and other executives - Executives need a clear view of what’s happening across the project portfolio, both so they can make decisions about its overall shape (cancelling projects, redirecting resources, etc), and so they can deal with interdependencies and side effects.  Reviews help ensure that their decisions are based on well-validated information.

3) Organisational learning - Project reviews are an excellent way to help organisations learn from experience. They help project teams see what is really happening and hence learn immediate lessons about what is and isn't working. At a wider level, they can record their observations into checklists and other artefacts, hence transferring lessons learned on one project to others across the portfolio. Finally, participating on review teams broadens individuals’ skills and expertise by giving them the opportunity to see a wider range of projects.

When we have a clear understanding of what’s happening on our projects, we’re more likely to make good decisions about how to execute them. That’s what reviews are about: giving clear, well-validated information to decision makers, so they can make good decisions.

The Role of the PMO

Despite these benefits, project reviews can be stressful for all concerned. Few project teams have spare time to talk to reviewers.  Review teams need to get up to speed rapidly on complex projects.  Political pressures are common.  The PMO can play an important role in reducing this stress and maximising the effectiveness of review and assurance teams.  It does this by: 

  • Establishing context for regular reviews - When reviews are exceptional events, they tend to be heavyweight affairs. The review team spends a lot of time understanding project context and history. They ask a lot of questions. This all disrupts the project team. Worse, reviews come to be associated with failure – the mere fact of being reviewed suggests that your project is in trouble. This creates defensiveness. Conversely, when reviews are conducted routinely, as part of “business as usual”, they tend to be less disruptive, less contentious and more effective. The PMO can help establish that regular reviews are the norm, and schedule and coordinate these reviews.
  •  Providing a pool of expertise - Review teams need people with expertise and experience in reviewing. The PMO can provide a pool of such people, either from within itself or by keeping track of the expertise within the organisation. It can also help grow the pool of expertise, e.g. by constructing review teams with a view to extending people’s experience and providing mentoring opportunities.
  • Maintaining review checklists and guidelines - These help review teams decide what aspects of a project to focus on, and what to look for when reviewing these aspects. The PMO can ensure that such materials are accessible and are updated to reflect lessons learned in the course of reviews.
  • Monitoring effectiveness - Just as reviews help us learn from experience on projects, we want to build in mechanisms for learning from our experience of reviews. The PMO can gather feedback from project teams and executives on the effectiveness of reviews and the value of their outputs. This feedback can then be used to refine review schedules, adjust the structure of review teams, update checklists, etc
  • Tracking project-level actions - Reviews provide information. It’s usually left to the project team to act on this information and any associated recommendations. The PMO may help track such actions.  (Alternatively, this may be left to the project manager.)
  • Supporting portfolio- and programme-level actions - Where reviews identify actions outside the scope of the project team (e.g. for portfolio or programme managers, or for corporate executives), the PMO can help coordinate and track these actions. (Again, this may be left to the project manager to handle through regular communication channels with their project board.  However, the PMO provides a useful supporting channel.)
  • Embedding lessons learned into organisational standards - In response to the good practices and common issues they see on projects, review teams may recommend refinements to the organisation’s project methodology and associated templates, guidelines, etc. The PMO typically coordinates such updates. It might also develop supporting artefacts – case studies, training materials, etc.
  • Providing administrative support - The administrative load involved with running a review programme across a substantial portfolio should not be underestimated. Scheduling meetings, booking rooms, recording minutes, etc, can consume a lot of time. It’s not glamorous work, but the PMO’s support for these activities can be invaluable.

All these activities take load off review teams, freeing them to focus on undertaking effective reviews and managing relationships with project stakeholders.

Conclusion

No matter what we do, some projects will always fail. Organisations take risks in order to gain the benefits that projects deliver: new products, improved operations, better infrastructure, etc. The only way to completely eliminate failure is to stop doing projects and hence forgo these benefits.

The secret to success, then, is to learn from experience, and to identify incipient failures before they become catastrophic. Project reviews are a great way to do both these things. And the PMO plays a vital role in setting up and supporting an effective review and assurance programme.

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Posted by Graham Oakes on 28th Mar 2012

About the Author
Graham Oakes helps people untangle complex technology, relationships, processes and governance. He can be contacted through www.grahamoakes.co.uk or at graham@grahamoakes.co.uk. His book Project Reviews, Assurance and Governance is published by Gower.

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