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Reimagine project assurance: common issues in today’s complex projects

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This is the second in a series of blogs discussing the need for a step-change in how we assure projects and increase the chances of project success. In this article, we look at some of the common issues across complex projects that can be helped by an evolved approach to project assurance.


In our previous blog, we shared how the complexity of modern projects necessitates development in how we conduct project assurance.

This evolution is important in building confidence amongst stakeholders, and it’s important in transitioning from a reactionary capability to a proactive, value-add intelligence source. It is a key opportunity in augmenting traditional delivery methodologies so that they remain relevant and calibrated as project complexity grows.

In this blog we look at four common issues we see across complex projects that can be helped through evolved assurance approaches. These complex projects typically have major physical and digital assets and interfaces, in addition to significant workforce and environmental/societal implications. These common issues build on the experience of KPMG’s Major Projects Advisory team which has undertaken assurance on some of the world’s most complex – and troubled – projects.

Life cycle complexity

Complex projects rarely follow an academic and sequential progression through a life cycle. Different parts of the project progress at different rates.

Assurance has traditionally assumed linear progression through the core life cycle stage. This limits foresight and insight. In reality, work often starts with the ‘GO’ criteria not met due to time, cost, political or other pressures. Designs are commonly matured while preceding works are delivered, and these designs often make misaligned assumptions regarding works being delivered. Pressures during delivery can mean that important components of project delivery such as benefits realisation are not planned or implemented. It can also result in certain deliverables being undelivered or even unplanned, such as residual post-completion works.

It is difficult for a complex project under stress to maintain holistic focus or take a pause to reconcile its approach – even when the opportunity cost is understood.

Variable delivery methodology

The nature of complex projects means that there’s invariably a mix of delivery methodologies being deployed in addition to portfolio, programme and project approaches. Overarching approaches such as waterfall and agile have many forms and are often crafted into organisationally bespoke project delivery methodologies. Not only do complex projects deploy different methodologies to accommodate different scopes of work, but they often interface with other stakeholder organisations that have their own bespoke approaches for the same types of work.

Bringing these together is often neglected, and the performance management of work packages using different methodologies is often ineffective in identifying integration issues. Forcing very different performance information into a single reporting framework at a leadership level risks an erosion of transparency and detail. Equally, forcing very different work types into a common delivery methodology threatens the ability to deliver. A balanced and nuanced approach is needed, and projects rarely get it right.

Complexity inertia

Despite differing project methodologies, typologies and complexities, all work is underpinned by common-in-principle delivery processes. However, project teams are often overwhelmed by the apparent complexity and diversity of the work being delivered. This results in teams accepting that progress across diverse work packages can never be assessed ‘apples for apples’, leading to hidden misalignment. This also often results in a disproportionate focus on from leadership on firefighting very tactical, specific issues.

The criticality of these tactical issues can often be seen as justification for their attention. Opportunities to mitigate many tactical-level issues through strategic decision making on complex, integrated matters can often be missed. It is a balancing act that needs to be underpinned by considered governance arrangements and appropriate delegated decision making.

Requirement for delegation, escalation, and integration

Major projects are vertically multi-layered and present a significant integration challenge. Project requirements are delegated top-down through work packages to project teams before further division. Delegated objectives, responsibilities, authorities and priorities can be unclear and misaligned, resulting in inefficient and misdirected project team activity. Delegations downwards can also break in clarity between levels due to poor configuration control and management styles, resulting in unseen issues.

Escalation upwards (such as decisions, approvals, reporting etc.) can be ineffective and deficient, resulting in issues not being resolved in a timely manner. Packages that require integrated delivery can be performed in isolation, resulting in divergence and ineffective outputs. Critical work packages can also sit outside of the project’s control loop, leading to uncertainty in outcome and unmanaged interfaces.

The full project ecosystem is rarely understood, let alone assessed for its effectiveness. In a world where projects are becoming increasingly systems-based in their nature, we need to be able to look at the delivery structures in the same way.

Bringing the step change to assurance

Knowing what the common issues are helps us to understand how to pivot assurance to be a value-add capability. In our final blog, we will talk about what this pivot could look like. Join us on 1 February 2023 for our webinar where we discuss in more detail how assurance can evolve to meet the needs of today’s and tomorrow’s project demands.

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  1. Ian Heptinstall
    Ian Heptinstall 02 December 2022, 04:17 PM

    I might be pre-empting Part 3 in my comment Liam.... It seems to me that the need for external assurance is also linked to the quality of project management (including the professional/functional management of project managers) and the confidence in the overall project manager to manage in the true interest of the owner/funder. As I read this post, I agree the issues you mention are sadly all too common, but my instinct is there is an overarching project management capability problem here. Significant assurance might be needed in the short-term to minimise bad performance, but I dont see that as a sustainable long-term solution. Surely in the long-term we need to get better at managing projects? (BTW I'm not convinced the inherent challenges of major projects have really increased that much over time. IMO our approaches have made things harder). For the first 15 years of my career I worked in a project organisation, where the issues you describe in this article were rare (and no projects in the chemicals industry weren't easier). Only one of my projects missed its cost/time/scope goals. A few that you might say 'failed' were not seen as such because the business knew that was a risk and we agreed to give it a go. To paraphrase Eddison, we found ways that didnt work - and there was no issue at all with that. If project teams are "overwhelmed by the apparent complexity and diversity", does this not suggest they are not up to the job they are given? "Inspection does not improve the quality, nor guarantee quality. Inspection is too late. The quality, good or bad, is already in the product." W. Edwards Deming, Out of the Crisis, p29 (from

  2. Liam Hewitt
    Liam Hewitt 02 December 2022, 04:55 PM

    Great insights, Ian. Slightly paraphrasing what we've picked up in private conversation - but I think there is a huge value in maturely exploring the quality/effectiveness of project management. I would challenge the point about project complexity - we see extraordinarily complex endeavours regularly these days - but I would hypothesise that there is an imbalance between (a) effective management as defined by some today, and (b) the complexity of today's projects. A really good convo to take forward.