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What Makes Good Project Assurance?

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In my last blog, I shared my heuristics for big projects. One of these is the need to take an external view on projects to mitigate against optimism bias and groupthink, and to improve the chance of success. Good project assurance is an important way of providing this external view and needs to be a key governance consideration for project sponsors and boards.

Definitions below courtesy of Wikipedia:
Optimism bias: A cognitive bias that causes someone to believe that they themselves are less likely to experience a negative event.
Groupthink: A psychological phenomenon that occurs within a group of people in which the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in an irrational or dysfunctional decision-making outcome.

One of the great things about leading major projects in Government is you get to experience project assurance from both “sides”. I provide assurance in my role as a high-risk review team leader for the Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA), and I’ve received assurance on the major projects I’ve directed.

The IPA assures, supports and reports on Government major projects – those which require spending over and above departmental limits (often £50m), require primary legislation, or are innovative or contentious. This represents a portfolio of around 200 projects with a total cost to the taxpayer approaching £500bn. The IPA assurance review kit can be found here.

The purpose of any project assurance should be to help the sponsor to improve its chance of success. Assurance reviews should be taken at key stages in the project lifecycle, such as business justification, delivery strategy, investment decision, readiness for service and benefit realisation.

Assurance teams should be independent and have relevant project and industry expertise. They should work on a peer-to-peer basis, against an agreed terms of reference and code of conduct. Key aspects of conduct are teamwork, objectivity, diversity, openness, honesty, constructive challenge and confidentiality.

Good assurance reviews are well planned and consider a range of evidence and stakeholder views on a “non-attributable” basis. The assurance team should make evidence-based findings and practical recommendations that will aid delivery, highlighting good practice as well as areas for improvement. They should regularly update the sponsor during the review to ensure there are “no surprises”.

The output of the assurance review should be a report that is agreed with the sponsor. This report should provide an assessment of delivery confidence, findings, recommendations, blockers, and areas of good practice.

IPA assurance reviews utilise a RAG delivery confidence assessment. There is a nuance to providing such an assessment. Some of the key questions I consider are: do the project vision and objectives remain valid; are stakeholders bought into these; is the delivery strategy right; is there good governance; are the risks understood; and is there the right capability in the project team

Green: Successful delivery of the programme/project to time, cost and quality appears highly likely and there are no major outstanding issues that at this stage appear to threaten delivery.

Amber: Successful delivery of the programme/project to time, cost and quality appears feasible but significant issues already exist requiring management attention. These appear resolvable at this stage and, if addressed promptly, should not present a cost/schedule overrun.

Red: Successful delivery of the programme/project to time, cost and quality appears to be unachievable. There are major issues which, at this stage, do not appear to be manageable or resolvable. The programme/project may need re-baselining and/or its overall viability re-assessed.

Following the assurance review, the onus is on the project sponsor and board to ensure the recommendations are implemented. Actions should be planned, with progress against these tracked and reported to the board. Further assurance of action plans should be considered, especially in the case of a red delivery confidence assessment.

About Paul

Paul works in partnership with healthcare organisations to deliver people-centred transformation that improves services for patients and staff. He has 25 years’ transformation experience, with 15 years leading national programmes and services in the NHS. He is a graduate of the Major Projects Leadership Academy, a high-risk review team leader for the Infrastructure and Projects Authority and a mental health first aider.

About SmartCo Consulting

SmartCo is a consultancy business specialising in the delivery of digital transformation projects for large private and public sector organisations. We offer advisory, project delivery and optimisation services across a range of industries including Healthcare, Consumer & Retail, Media & Telco and Financial Services.

If you would like to speak to the SmartCo team about your project assurance needs, then please contact us here.
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