What makes a good project reviewer?

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Projects are tricky beasts. Lots of moving parts. Tight deadlines.  Skills shortages. Diverse, and often conflicting, stakeholder perspectives. With so much going on, it’s easy for a team to overlook important details, or to get blindsided by change or drift in project parameters.

That’s where project reviews come in. Providing an independent perspective on the project – what’s going on within the team, how things are really looking against the plan and specification, whether key assumptions still apply – reviews help project managers get a clearer view of the reality underpinning their project.

At a wider level, project reviews help portfolio and programme managers keep in touch with the shifts and trade-offs happening across their collection of projects.  This helps them allocate resources effectively, frame interventions to keep projects on track, and so on.

Which is all good.  But how do we run those reviews?  In particular, how do we find people who are able to conduct effective reviews – often a very different talent to running a project.  After all, project management is about setting direction, taking control, and seeing things through to the end.  Reviewing is about coming in, getting up to speed quickly, observing and analysing what is going on, making recommendations, and then exiting.  A very different mindset.

So, here are some of the qualities I’d be looking for in a project reviewer:

  • Experience of projects similar to the one being reviewed.  Reviewers have to win the respect of the project teams they’re working with.  A track record of working on similar projects helps a lot in this regard.  It also helps the reviewer get up to speed with the project, and gives them some insight into the type of issues it may be experiencing.  (This has a downside too: it may bias what they look for.)
  • Experience of a range of different types of project. Different teams run their projects in different ways. A good reviewer appreciates the range of approaches that a team might consider, and the trade-offs between these approaches. This makes it easier for them to say “I see why you’re doing it that way, but have you considered that doing it this way might give the following benefits...”. Coming in with a single fixed idea of how projects must be run is a good way to alienate the project team and thus make it hard to gather information about the project.
  • Project management skills. A reviewer has to know what the options are – what constitutes good practice in different circumstances, which standards apply, when to seek variances from those standards, etc. They have to understand these options deeply enough to be able to look through superficial differences across teams and see whether good practice is really being applied. Likewise, they need to be able to differentiate between superficial compliance and true adoption of accepted practices and policies. This all calls for a strong project management background.
  • Technical skills. If the project’s success depends on particular skills or technologies, then the review team will need sufficient understanding of these areas to assess how they’re being applied.  This doesn’t mean that every member of a review team needs technical expertise, but the team must have access to that expertise in some way.
  • Reviewing skills. A reviewer will come up to speed more quickly if they understand the review process well. They’ll also need to know what checklists and other assets are available, and where to find these assets.They’ll need to be able to do things such as conduct interviews, use the organisation’s project management toolset, etc.  Proficiency in these areas makes it easier to conduct the review. It also helps reviewers demonstrate that they know what they’re doing, thus helping win the respect of project teams.
  • Listening skills. Reviewers need to build trust and rapport with members of the project team. Without that trust, the team won’t open up about the issues the project is experiencing.  (Remember that projects rarely get totally blindsided by issues. Someone usually knows that there’s a problem. They just don't know how to communicate it. A good reviewer helps bring all this knowledge into the light.)

To build such trust, reviewers need good listening skills. They need to be able to win people’s respect, demonstrating their professionalism and expertise without seeming aloof or arrogant.  They also need to be able to probe gently if they sense that they haven’t heard the full story.

  • Observation. Reviewers need to be sensitive to other signs of what is going on – the clues about project and team dynamics that may be evident in interaction patterns, workplace arrangements, body language, deliverables, and so on.  There’s rarely enough evidence in such observations alone to tell you what problems a project is experiencing, but they can be valuable signs that you need to look more deeply in certain areas.
  • Analysis and evidence gathering. Reviewers often take a broad perspective, looking briefly at the project and focusing on the big picture. But once they’ve got a sense of where the issues lie, they need to be able to drill down and gather and analyse detailed evidence. Without a firm grounding in evidence, it can be very difficult to convince a sceptical project team of the review team’s findings. And once they've gathered this detailed evidence, they need to be able to build it back up into a clear picture, so they can communicate those findings effectively.
  • Courage. Project teams and executives rarely want to hear bad news. Reviewers need the courage to give such news when necessary, in the face of disbelief and even downright hostility from the audience. They need to be able to hold their ground and argue their case without becoming overly aggressive or defensive.

That’s a long enough list. If an organisation wants to run effective reviews, it needs to think about how it’s going to grow people with such skills.  Some of the skills can be built through training (e.g. many of the reviewing skills can be built this way). Others are best developed through a combination of experiential training, coaching, and apprenticeship. Here’s a good role for the PMO: creating the training and career path necessary to build a pool of reviewing expertise within the organisation.

Likewise, not every person on a review team needs all these skills.  PMOs should be trying to construct review teams with a good overall balance of skills; combining a couple of project managers with appropriate technical experts, for example.  I’d also be tempted to combine people with different levels of experience.  Although I’d want most reviewers to be pretty experienced, people who are new to the organisation or at the start of their careers will see things from a different perspective. And participating on reviews can be a great way for new project managers to see a range of projects and hence rapidly broaden their experience.

That brings me back to the purpose of reviews. Many organisations frame reviews as a control mechanism, a way to ensure that project managers are doing what they’re supposed to do. I prefer to frame them as a learning mechanism: a way to learn about what is or isn’t working on our projects. By creating feedback mechanisms within projects and across the project portfolio, reviews can be a powerful contributor to organisational learning and effectiveness.

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Posted by Graham Oakes on 9th Jan 2013

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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