Assurance – a welcomed behaviour within the change delivery culture…

Culture is an interesting beast. It’s often discussed, yet hard to articulate and is typically only subjectively measured. These truisms are amplified when the culture in question relates to change delivery. Project teams are often seen as being a law unto themselves. Cowboy’s driving to a date with scant regard for the impact on others.

Surely then, adding an element of embedded assurance into the cultural mix would be a good idea? Less stick wielding police, more caring parent giving advice and the confidence that you’re getting it right.

Culture is created by the way a group behaves and is only susceptible to change by influence, not by force. The combination of people with shared values and respect for the controls is the optimal mix. It takes a deft hand and a delicate balance to create the right environment, too many controls and you risk creating a culture of rebellion, too few and it’s the Wild-West.

Assurance, when done well, is a positive enabler not a roadblock. For it to flourish, and in turn for more projects to succeed, it needs to be an embedded element of the change delivery culture.

Within the change delivery environment an inherent culture of opportunism and positivity is characteristic. Individuals of multiple talents are organisationally structured with a common sense of purpose, and are praised for their capabilities to deliver on agreed expectations. The eternal challenge is control.

These change tribes even collectively strategise and tactically map out with the sponsoring high power chiefs of the organisational land how they will enable the all-conquering business plan, which will defeat their rivals and sustain a better future for all.

Culture is created by the way a group behaves and is only susceptible to change by influence, not by force.

Behind these movements of change revolution are often an agreed framework with mechanisms that assist the community, as well as show those on the outside what and how they are enabling and progressing on their transformational journey.

In my previous blog, “Project Methodologies – Which one is right for me?”, I touched on how assurance is often perceived as an inherent part of the delivery process. The issue is whether self-regulation is effective.

Before all the ‘Agilists’ shout out saying we have assurance through our stand-ups, stories with their associated definition of ‘done’ and intermittent retrospectives. Or the ‘Waterfallers’ with their ‘RAG’ status reports, stage gates and exit test criteria rise to claim absolute control. I agree that there is a certain level of assurance in play within delivery frameworks of all persuasions.

My question is, can it truly be said that built within the change delivery beliefs and shared perceptions of the ways of working of these delivery frameworks, there is a true sense of independent assurance?

A method allowing themselves to be appropriately challenged, which validates if their chosen pathway to success is the right one and is meeting expectations, particularly within the boundaries of time, cost and benefits (quality / scope)? I think not.

Performance or outcome based assurance has its own framework, processes and mechanisms (e.g. evaluations or audits, reporting, ongoing monitoring) to ensure that projects undertaken are operating efficiently and effectively to meet agreed objectives. These are quite separate to the delivery agenda but can work effectively in parallel to the benefit of all.

Assurance needs to be received in a positive mindset and be at the forefront of the change delivery culture.

Assurance reviews do not have to be perceived as draconian, but more a transparent method where the change culture welcomes a collaboration between its common cause and the transparency of an independent party ensuring everything is operating as it should.

This independent party supports the common cause through assisting in the provision of valued insights and constructive recommendations that both streamline project operations and ensure delivery of agreed outcomes.

I don’t believe, in our time of instant gratification and market presence counted in seconds, that change assurance is welcomed in to constructively challenge the pillars of the hybrid change delivery methodologies and question those that scurry in the hallways of the transformation.

It is still seen as the dreary shadow best left in the dark, like the names of the federal government agents who took down Al Capone for tax evasion, Frank J. Wilson and prosecutor George E.Q. Johnson. Unlike the more known and decorated Eliot Ness and his incorruptible Untouchables caught Al for selling illicit whisky.

Like the need to stop Al Capone and his thuggish behaviour back in the late 1920s, there is a need to change the perception and use of assurance within the change delivery environment.

Assurance needs to be received in a positive mindset and be at the forefront of the change delivery culture. If not, we will continue to see projects not meet expectations and the change failure rates continuing to exceed 25%.

Project Methodologies – Which one is right for me?

The majority of people think of project management (PM) methodologies as blueprints, step-by-step instructions that guide the delivery team on how to build a successful project to deliver. They’re not. That’s not to say they’re without value, quite the contrary, they’re just not blueprints.

With so many different methodologies it’s hard to decide which way to go. How can an executive know which is the right one to manage the complexity of your program? Which one will guarantee success and deliver within agreed tolerances?

As with anything, it’s important to understand the relative strengths and weaknesses before making a decision. This is typically mired in jargon that seems designed to confuse so I’ve provided a quick, plain language definition of the most commonly used options.

Agile

Developed for projects requiring significant flexibility and where the end-end picture is evolving.

Agile is highly iterative, allowing for swift adjustments throughout a project and is be best suited for small to medium sized projects (e.g. product developments where multiple variants exist or are required). To make it work you need a self-motivated team with decision making autonomy.

While Agile methods are widely used across multiple industries and are known to have built-in quality management system, there are challenges around assessing the quality in terms of delivery output (scope), progress (time) and costs.

Waterfall

Downwardly sequential in nature with static phases executed in an exact order. Waterfall is seen by many as the ‘traditional’ approach and is used across many industries such as aviation, construction, defence.

Waterfall gives increased control and structure but flexibility can suffer when unanticipated scope changes occur. Waterfall being a traditional delivery method means quality assurance is report based relying on periodic inspections, and can be seen as more reactive than proactive.

Critics see the large investment in creating ‘certainty’ over scope and approach upfront as tedious and costly. That said, managed well the control and structure can ensure tight financial reigns are applied.

Critical Path Method (CPM)

Visual and mathematical, this step-by-step methodology is often used for large projects with interdependent activities, particularly those in the manufacturing and construction.

It contains a list of activities and uses a work-break-down structure (WBS), a timeline to complete and dependencies, milestones, and deliverables.

It outlines critical and non-critical activities by calculating the “longest” (on the critical path) and “shortest” (float) time to complete tasks to determine which activities are critical and which are not.

It’s got obvious upsides for management transparency but has a tendency to drive focus more on time than quality and costs.

Scrum

This one is a part of the agile framework for managing complex development efforts and, like Agile, is iterative in nature.

“Scrum sessions” are used to prioritise tasks and a Scrum Master facilitates a sprint (usually 30 days) instead of a project manager. Small teams are assembled to focus on specific tasks independently and then meet with the Scrum Master to evaluate progress or results and reprioritize backlogged tasks.

Scrum relies on stakeholders working collaboratively through a journey of agreed sprints with a value of ‘learn and test as you go’. Scrum is exceptionally dependent on the quality of the people involved.

Risky when you’re new to it, but powerful once your teams are well versed

The winner is…

Applying any of these delivery methodologies and following recognised standards, like Organisational Project Management Maturity Model (OPM3), will strengthen alignment between business planning and execution performance.

Everyone has their own ideas and what they may regard as best practice, is it Agile, Waterfall, or is it fly by the seat of your pants, or just yell and get it done. The truth is there is simply no right (or wrong answer). In my experience, it’s usually a hybrid of them all that gets the best results.

All of them can work.

With more years of independent assurance experience than I care to mention, what I do know irrefutably is that the major differentiator for success is the quality and engagement level of the leader. The shiniest tools with the fanciest methodology are worthless without exceptional leadership. But that’s a subject for a whole different blog.

Noel O’Kelly is Principal Consultant, Assurance at Sequential.

Assurance and Audit – important weapons in the war on waste

With firms across the financial services industry intensifying their focus on extracting the very best from every project dollar, there is a building trend to monitor projects for any sign of waste. Anything that resembles divergence from the path to benefits is, quite rightly, being questioned. The question I’m getting asked more than any other right now is whether traditional audit or assurance is the best approach.

Before we get to my views on the best way forward let’s start by understanding the options. They might start with the same letter and both end in a report but pretty much everything in between is different.

The question I’m getting asked more than any other right now is whether traditional audit or assurance is the best approach.

Audit by its very definition is an analysis or examination of something that already exists, its retrospective. Audits are particularly useful for identifying what occurred at a point in time and for identifying where adherence to a process faltered. In a project context this scenario most often relates to auditing adherence to the project delivery methodology. Evidence of systemic audit failures may indicate a lack of awareness of the methodology or potentially it’s lack of relevance. In both instances there are useful actions to take and value to be had for future initiatives.

Unlike audits, assurance reviews invest limited attention on past activities and often only a cursory glance at adherence to methodology. Assurance reviews focus instead on the ongoing relevance of the initiative to the stated business case and the likelihood it will achieve the desired benefits. Assurance by design is forward looking.

If, through an assurance review, an initiative is found to be unlikely to achieve the desired outcome the reviewer may then look deeper into prior events to see if a logical, and recoverable, point of divergence is evident. They may also request a detailed audit of past events. Assurance reviews most often provide value through recommended corrective actions to the inflight initiative. A course correction towards the benefit outcome.

Assurance and audit used together are a formidable arsenal. So then, which is better?

As you may have deduced, it’s all about timing. If the initiative is in progress then it’s always better to lead with an assurance review. The forward looking lens and the ability to apply corrective actions trumps the process adherence and more detailed but retrospective focus of an audit every time.

If you’re looking at the strength (or otherwise) of your delivery methodology then audit is absolutely the way forward. This will allow you to establish strong, evidence based decision criteria ahead of any change to your approach.

As with everything, the right tool applied to the right job will bring the best outcome.

Project Management: Time for a rethink?

If project management is the tool for change, isn’t it about time we changed project management?

Before all the ‘big A’ Agile pundits get up in arms let me be clear. Methodologies come and go from time to time. They evolve, change name and shuffle the theoretical equivalent of deck chairs but they don’t really change. Waterfall and Agile alike have been around in various guises for what in commercial terms is millennia. In recent years Agile has been better marketed by those seeking to profit from its proliferation. Sadly however, it is simply not the magic-bullet it’s sold to be. Not even close.

Too often the level of ideology surrounding Agile as a methodology gets in the way. Those who leap to its defence will argue – it’s not Agile’s fault, it’s the way it’s applied. And there, my friends, is the problem. If it can’t be easily applied, is not well used and your customers don’t buy it then, and I know this might be painful, its time to move on.

With that said (and I suspect with the Agile ideologues now departed citing blasphemy and calling for my head) let me clarify. I’m not suggesting that we ignore existing methodologies with blatant disregard for the obvious merits in much of that which they espouse. Not at all. But, like everything else in business, can we please add some commerciality to their application.

Since the ‘real’ start of 2015, I’ve already lost count of the number of client conversations where they lament the inability of their business to deliver projects, no matter how many zeros are added to the budget.

It’s a familiar refrain. The client says ‘I’m tired of all our projects taking forever and costing so much’, they complain that despite changes to their PMO adding new controls and tools they still can’t get stuff delivered and then they begin to look for ways to operate around the project management environment.

Now this should be cause for panic if you happen to be in a central project function, or at the very least some modest introspection. Your customers are only dealing with you because they have too and even then they’re looking for other options. The conversation is wrong. They are looking for commercial outcomes and the project machine is talking methodology.

Just as familiar as the problem is the response. It starts with an apology, usually framed somehow around the volume or pace of projects or some other equally inane excuse. Then come promises of a transformed future. All of this is eventually met with a revised project methodology which contains new layers of bureaucracy and some changes to templates. ARGHHH! It is such a frustratingly shallow and formulaic response you’d expect it from a troubled political leader… Wait. Can I say that? Is it too soon? Moving on.

The business landscape has changed almost incomprehensibly in the past 20 years. Unfathomably in the past five and inconceivably in the past two. It is not slowing down. Products and services that were once the exclusive bastion of established businesses are facing a steady onslaught from fast-moving entrepreneurially backed start-ups. Think Uber for the taxi industry, AIRBnB for Hotels, Xero for accounting.

Gone are the days where the big guys rule the playground and drive the agenda. The kids are faster, smarter and unencumbered. They’ve got the consumer onside and the advantage of ‘challenger’ status.

Look behind the doors of the new breed and you won’t find large project management structures, overweight with people, process, methodologies and templates. To them these are constraints – the sort of things their fighting against. In these firms you’ll see a culture that breeds ideas, germinates them rapidly and kills them ruthlessly if they don’t stack up. The project start-up cycle isn’t months long costing tens of thousands (or more). It is fast, very fast. Sometimes a few days, rarely a month. Every cent invested has to be earned so they move fast and spend light.

They don’t talk of failure they talk of ‘pivots’. Rapid changes in direction that allow ideas to grow and flex with the illumination that comes through evolution. They run fast. Very fast.

‘FinTech’ is one of the fastest moving of these segments. They are creating technology that is changing the way individuals access information, interact with products and make decisions.

If your business can’t think and act like an entrepreneurial firm then you’re already losing. The question is only how long is the game?

Wealth businesses need the ability to deliver change rapid and the project methodologies of today can’t cut it. If the ability to drive change is important to your business and you want a better way, give us a call.