Using “critical friends” to review the state of a project is an inexpensive way of avoiding major problems. Project reviews and their documentation is a useful part of the project management process that starts with the Project Proposal and its formal approval.
When and Where Should a Project be Reviewed?
All projects have a lifecycle for example an IT project may go through initiate, design, build, test and implement stages. There should be a formal decision to move to the next stage and release the finance. As part of that decision it may be useful to have a health check performed to validate the scope and plans are still valid and the project is on a sound footing.
There is a clear need for a project health check if there are known problems or the project sponsor feels exposed and uncertain about the viability or status of the project.
A change of project sponsor or manager would also be a good time to trigger a health check. In any case a new project manager, coming in with fresh eyes, should conduct her own project review modelled along these lines.
How to Health Check a Project
The coverage and contents of a project review or health check should examine in particular the following key areas:
- Project Business Case and Approval – Has it been formally approved by senior management and key stakeholders? Does it represent the business need and is it aligned with corporate strategy? Is the scope under proper change control to stop creep?
- Business Sponsorship – Is there a clear business sponsor who champions the project and is responsible for achievement of the business benefits? Does the sponsor challenge the project team assumptions and plans?
- Governance – Are formal processes in place to manage the project in line with corporate standards in place and used effectively? These should include processes to manage quality, risk, change, dependencies, suppliers and escalation of issues.
- Project Plans and Milestones – Should be realistic with appropriate contingency identified with a baseline plan subject to change control to maintain project management discipline. Have basic quantitative checks of project viability been made and documented?
- Resources and Functional Capability – A key test is whether the project have the resources it needs. This should include consideration of both management and technical capability, staffing numbers and skills, infrastructure and budget.
- Stakeholders and Users – Stakeholders should be properly engaged and managed. Their roles should be clearly defined especially with regard to decision making or advice. Is appropriate information being made available to those stakeholders who need to be kept informed; is there a communication plan being operated?
- External Factors – Finally the health check should consider the impact and the project team’s awareness of external factors. This might include, amongst others, regulatory changes, competition, social, political, economic and environmental matters.
Value of a Critical Friend
“Critical friends” should be experienced project managers and may have a specialist background to enable them to quickly evaluate the project. It helps if “critical friends” are aware of the business context but they should be independent of the project being reviewed.
Such reviewers will provide an alternative view of all aspects of the project, scope and processes that will allow them to provide a supportive challenge to the project manager, business sponsor and other key project management staff.
A key test should be how well the project sponsor and manager understand the challenge they face. Are they on top of the task and have the skills and capability to deliver the project objectives.
Recommendations and Action Plan
The final documentation may be a formal report but the most important element is the recommendation section. From that the project manager and business sponsor should agree an action plan to address the recommendations and when and how that action plan should be monitored. The recommendations will be used in any subsequent health checks or aa part of the governance process.
Even on a very large project a small team should be able to undertake a project review in a day or three. It is time well spent as it provides fresh insight and also cause the project management to stand back and reassess the state of the project.