Health has been at the heart of every conversation in 2020-21 and it’s no wonder since the COVID pandemic came to remind us of the importance of being and staying healthy. Yet, doing a health check once in a while applies to projects too. So, let me ask you: how are things going for you on your projects, could you benefit from doing a project health check?
What is a Project Health Check?
Health checks are one of the most popular tools and review types in project assurance, aiming to provide confidence to key stakeholders, such as the Sponsor or the Board, that the project will meet its objectives. It is a review that helps determine the effectiveness of current project governance and highlights areas of the project management process that need focus.
Health checks can be tailored to the needs of organisations, based on their priorities, or, if you are just starting, I’d advise relying on a well-established framework such as APM’s Measures for Assuring Projects.
According to the APM’s toolkit, 10 key criteria should be assured, namely:
- Client and scope – clear and controlled baseline requirements, objectives, success criteria, business case, terms of reference, contracts and benefits realisation.
- Risks and opportunities – management of risk and opportunity through the life cycle of the project.
- Planning and scheduling – appropriately detailed execution strategies, plans and schedules.
- Organisational capability and culture – people, behaviours, teams, processes, systems and the working environment.
- Supply chain – procurement processes, engagement with, and capability of, both the internal and external supply chain.
- Solution – the deliverables and outcomes that meet the client requirements. This includes product and/or service quality and the impact of the finished product or service on the social, physical and economic environment.
- Finance – commercial management and administration.
- Social responsibility and sustainability – managing the impact of project delivery on the social, physical, ecological and economic environment; this includes health and safety.
- Performance – measuring all facets of performance against the baseline requirements, variance analysis and management action.
- Governance – the processes to align the interests and strategic direction of sponsors and stakeholders
Why should you give your project a health check?
As with any health check, we want to identify any early warning indicators so that concerns can be actioned on time before any damage is done. Conducting a Health Check can help ensure that:
- Risks, challenges, and issues are early identified: sure, risk and issue management are responsibility of the project manager, however, independent assurance will enable any less obvious ones to also be considered.
- Good practice is adopted, and strategies are adhered to: conducting a health check should be more than just a tick-boxing exercise on compliance to organisational standards. However, current practices should be assessed regarding their suitability and effectiveness and that’s where the expertise of the assurer will be of benefit.
- Communication within and around the project is improved: establishing health checks as a standard practice in projects will prevent what I like to call ‘submarine projects’, that is, projects that only come to the surface when they need more budget or there is already a problem; instead, organisations should seek continuous visibility and information about the project, where stakeholders do know what is going on.
- Effectiveness of the project can be measured: while assessing the project’s strategies and alignment to best practices is helpful, it is fundamental to remember that a health check is not an end but a means – at the end of the day, it is more important if the project is on track than if it is using the latest version of the PID template.
- There is a process for feedback: this is a great side benefit of health checks – they give the opportunity for people to express concerns that are not written down in your Comms Plan, such as the lack of a committed and supportive sponsor or poor leadership from the project manager.
- There is a clear and unbiased insight: by being an independent assessment, health checks present an objective view of the project, including on elements such as the project’s and organisation’s culture or the assignment of resources, which help build a case for change.
How do you perform a project health check?
When completing a project health check, we want to gain as much of a complete and holistic view of the project as possible, thus I recommend applying a triangulation approach, where you would be assessing:
- What should have happened: based on accepted best practices, organisational standards, and the baseline parameters of the project.
- What actually happened: based on documentary records and artefacts, including invoices, the project schedule, risk registers and others.
- How it is being perceived: based on interviews with stakeholders to gather their feedback, including wants, needs, and concerns.
Who should run them?
When there is no dedicated Assurance team, project health checks tend to be run by a PMO team, where assurance is one of their key functions. Nevertheless, given the benefits of health checks and in a lighter version (not as reliable/independent), they can also be utilised as a self-assessment tool by project management teams or even utilised by peers
When should I perform one?
Project health checks can be triggered by a concern from a stakeholder (e.g., Sponsor) or they can be planned as part of the Integrated Assurance and Approvals Plan for the project (IAAP). If the latter, the frequency of the health check should be documented and appropriate to the complexity and characteristics of the project – for instance, a 2-years highly complex project is expected to require more monitoring and control, and therefore more assurance, than a six-month low-complexity project. However, as a rule of thumb, I’d suggest no less than quarterly health checks since they can be a resource-intensive exercise and, of course, you don’t want to generate assurance fatigue on the project teams.
Practical hints and tips to perform a project health check
Now that we have covered the what, why, how, who, and when of project health checks, allow me to share some hints and tips from my own experience:
- Use a ‘no surprises’ approach: project health checks are not about trying to flag projects/people when they are unprepared and least expecting it; instead, you should be transparent on the whole process and communicate what it entails. This will help you build buy-in as well as manage expectations.
- Don’t make it an audit: audits are retrospective in nature, however, what you’ll want to achieve with a health check is a proactive and predictive attitude towards the project; so design it in a flexible and user-friendly way.
- Seek feedback: don’t be afraid to ask what people thought of the health check process they have been part of. That’s the only way to assess your own level of independence, being more conscious of your own bias and improve the effectiveness of future health checks.
- Make it action-oriented: make no mistake – health checks are useful, but they are ‘just’ a tool. It is what happens after the health check report is published that matters, thus, the health check should be clear on the action plan that follows. The value of assurance is in leading to better decisions and better projects.
The PMO Perspective
The PMO team are often the ones delivering independent assurance via a number of reviews including Health checks as detailed here. However, this does not preclude them from having to get some inward-looking insight into how they are performing and delivering their assurance services.
Utilising a tool similar to that of a project health check; such as the Wellingtone PMO MOT tool can provide much-needed assurance for the PMO to continue on their maturity journey.
So, if you are delivering project health checks in your organisations, we’d love to hear your stories and/or your challenges in our communities. Your insights and experience can help others on their journey.
Good luck and may all your projects be healthy!