How is your project going? If your answer is ‘it depends on who you ask’, trust me, you could benefit from better project assurance.
Project assurance is all about giving confidence to stakeholders that projects are delivering what they are expected to, that is, that their objectives – in terms of cost, time, scope, quality, and benefits – are being met. Don’t get me wrong, I’m certain that organisations have project teams that work with maximum integrity, and the departure point for any assurance function shouldn’t be one of distrust! However, it’s also fair to say that some organisations are so focused on speed to deliver that they end up overlooking some early warning indicators.
Others have a culture of blamestorming, where people don’t feel comfortable presenting the reality of their projects and end up painting them with a stretched optimism. Have you heard of watermelon reporting? Yes, that’s what I’m talking about – projects that look green on the outside until someone actually looks closer and realises that they are a bright red on the inside. While not a silver bullet on its own, assurance can help in instilling a culture of responsibility and transparency, where it is accepted that a red indicator is not necessarily ‘someone’s fault’ but where there is an appreciation for other factors which can be outside the project manager’s control and where red can be a cry for help. Resources, anybody?
Did I get your attention? Then let’s talk a bit more about what good looks like and how you can start on the exciting world of Assurance in your organisation.
Start with Engagement
- Be Clear on the Why: challenged projects serve as invaluable case studies for understanding the importance of assurance. Clearly defining the purpose behind assurance measures is essential. By delving into real-world scenarios, teams can better comprehend the necessity of a robust assurance framework.
- Co-create the Assurance Framework: co-creation ensures that everyone is invested in the assurance framework’s success. This collaborative approach fosters a sense of ownership and responsibility among team members, reinforcing the notion that no one destroys what they help to build.
- It’s Not About You, but Your Customers: shifting the focus to assurance as a service and seeing your stakeholders as customers is fundamental. Understanding the “What’s in it for me?” aspect helps teams recognise the direct impact assurance can bring to their project activities.
- Make Assurance Everyone’s Responsibility: assurance goes beyond traditional audits and health checks; it involves active participation from every team member. Encouraging self-assessments and peer reviews empowers individuals to take responsibility for the project’s success, and it helps embedding assurance as a normal practice in the organisation.
- Find Assurance Champions: identifying assurance champions within different business units is essential. These individuals act as advocates, promoting the importance of assurance throughout the organisation. Their influence and commitment are crucial in embedding assurance as a core value.
Start with a Plan
- APM’s Measures for Assuring Projects: there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. The Association for Project Management (APM) provides established Measures for Assuring Projects as a toolkit. Leveraging existing frameworks saves time and resources, whereas a pragmatic approach ensures that the assurance process is aligned with industry best practices.
- Just Enough Assurance: tailoring assurance to the project’s scale and complexity is vital. Proportionality ensures that the level of assurance matches the project’s requirements, preventing unnecessary bureaucracy while focusing on risk management. Let’s aim for Minimum Viable Bureaucracy.
- Communicate: effective communication is the backbone of successful assurance, contributing to a culture of accountability and trust. People need to know what is going to be assured, when they are going to be assured, or what evidence is going to be consulted. Don’t leave until the last minute.
Start with a Pilot
- Select a Pilot Project: having a controlled environment allows for testing and optimisation of your assurance processes before full-scale implementation. Use a project representing the average type or a sub-set of the portfolio.
- Feedback and Iteration: collecting feedback from project stakeholders and assurance team members is crucial. Actively seeking input ensures that the assurance framework remains adaptable and responsive.
- Document Lessons Learned: as with any project, documenting lessons learned from the pilot is essential for knowledge transfer to the organisation. Capture successes, areas for improvement, and any unexpected challenges which can be used as a base for future projects and reinforce a culture of continuous learning.
- Fine-tune & Scale Up: based on insights gathered, fine-tune the assurance processes and consider scaling them up to other projects in the portfolio/organisation. Remember also to share successes and consider doing an internal roadshow to launch it with the attention it deserves.
Fundamental Principles of Project Assurance
To be effective, according to the Association for Project Management (APM)’s Guide to Integrated Assurance, you should also be guided by six fundamental principles:
1) Independence: assurance providers should be independent; that is, they need to be objective in their evaluation and not emotionally attached to what is being assured. After all, we want facts, not opinions. Such independence should be demonstrated both in fact and in appearance by promoting an environment in which the assurer is free of any influence, interest or relationship that might impair professional judgment or objectivity.
2) Accountability: effective assurance turns a culture of blame into a culture of accountability, where different roles carry different responsibilities, and everyone knows what is expected of them and where they sit in the lines of the defence model.
3) Proportionality: assurance should be reasonably practicable; otherwise, we risk ‘death by assurance’. This means that the volume of assurance work carried out should be proportionate to the complexity and risk profile of the project.
4) Risk-based: unless you have a very small portfolio and/or don’t have any shortage of resources, it is likely that you won’t be able to have a dedicated assurer for each of your projects. So, where to start? You guessed it right; you will have to prioritise your effort. Assurance work should be planned to focus attention on areas of highest risk to the organisation.
5) Planning & Coordination: assurance engagements should be properly planned, including defining the engagement’s objective, scope, timing and resource allocation. You can find this information on the project’s Integrated Assurance and Approvals Plan
6) Impact, Follow-up, & Escalation: make no mistake, effective assurance does not end with identifying findings and recommendations. The value of assurance is a result of the impact of assurance.
Good assurance is, therefore, one which is designed to be proportionate, risk-based, independent, coordinated and planned; one which competent professionals deliver, is based on evidence, supports continuous improvement, spreads good practice, and leads to action. Ultimately, project assurance should help you make better and more informed decisions with confidence.
Ready to start? If you are simply seeking reassurance (see what I did there?) or want to upskill your PMO/Assurance teams, get in touch to learn more about our APM Accredited Assurance Practitioner training course. We would love to hear from you!