How to Conduct Project Health Assessments
How do you know if project failure lies ahead? Often you don’t. But if you stand back and look at the situation as if you were watching a movie, you may see the signs of impending disaster. Picture this scene: a train speeding down the track; a hurried driver in a car trying to make it across the tracks as the train rounds the curve; the conductor not paying attention; the crossing bars going down; the red lights flashing; the bells ringing. Watching the movie, how can you miss what is about to happen?
Picturing the project as a movie works if you can stand back from the project, but, the truth is that most people on the project team can’t see the train wreck that is about to occur, or if they do see it, they don’t know how to stop it. In addition, most project teams may not encounter one large disaster, but a series of small disasters that can lead up to larger failure. Like the train wreck scenario above, different parts of the project team may be unaware that they are on a collision course. Individual events, such as the driver running late or the conductor being distracted, may be caused by events that took place earlier.
The same is true for project failure. For example, not conducting a needs assessment; missing requirements; choosing the wrong software or implementation partner; or underestimating the impact of change can all be identified early on and corrected to lessen the downstream impact. That is why it a good idea to step back from the project and conduct periodic project health assessment throughout the project to identify warning signs and taking preventative action. By establishing a framework of periodic health assessments, organizations can ensure that project failure points are averted before they occur and the disastrous train wreck never materializes.
When to Conduct an Assessment
The following six stages in the project lifecycle are the most effective times to conduct project heath assessments:
1. During the strategy phase, before the business case is presented for approval and funding.
2. During the acquisition phase, towards the end of the vendor selection process, before vendors are finalized and negotiations begin.
3. During the planning phase after the initial drafts of the Project Charter, Detailed Project Plan and Change Management Plans have been developed.
4. During the design phase after the initial drafts of the System Design Documentation have been developed.
5. Towards the end of the development phase or the beginning of the Testing Phase.
6. Towards the end of the testing and training phase before the system cut-over.
The Assessment Process
The process for health assessments should be consistent and repeatable at every phase in the project. A simple seven step process for conducting project health assessments is a follows:
1. Conduct an expectations meeting. This step is the same for each phase of the project. However, the attendees may change for each phase.
2. Review project documentation. The documentation will change based on which project stage the assessment takes place.
3. Cross-reference documentation. Double check the accuracy of each document against the other. The cross-reference will change based on the documentation for that stage.
4. Interview key participants. Find out what each individual is really thinking about the project and weigh the results against the overall project status. The interview questions will vary per project stage.
5. Determine areas of concern/recommendations. Focus in on those areas that are common areas of concern and ideas for corrective courses of action. The areas of concern and recommendations will be based on the results of steps 2-4.
6. Review findings with key participants. Discuss the results of the assessment with the key individuals involved.
7. Final report/areas for follow-up. Hold a meeting to present the findings and determine areas for follow-up.
While many project managers may view periodic project health assessments as an unnecessary distraction, health assessments conducted by an outside expert add both value to the project implementation and protection against the high cost of failure. An objective third party can not only recognize subtle indicators, but also intervene to build consensus amongst diverse project team members and develop a collaborative approach to solution development and implementation. At the end of the day, the incremental costs you will incur by having an additional resource periodically conduct project health assessments will be far less than the cost of project delays caused by unrealized project gaps and will provide peace of mind that the project is on the right track.