The end of the year and the beginning of the year are times when Project Management Office teams often focus on health checks and project reviews.
Yes, they are things that should be built into the regular calendar of events, but we often see that executive teams demand a different level of reporting or request ‘deep dives’ into certain projects around these points. Perhaps it’s something to do with feeling like on January 1st everything starts afresh and you want to begin with the best possible chance of success.
Whatever the reason, project health checks are a straightforward way to identify areas of concern and work on a plan to get projects back on track. PMO teams are instrumental in carrying out health checks and working with the project team to implement whatever actions come out of them.
Here are 3 questions that every project health check should include. These are informal questions that are designed to test the maturity of project management approach. They will give you an indication of the capability of the project leadership team and are inspired by the work of Albert Ponsteen and Iryna Viter.
1. What’s your next priority?
Think about this question for yourself for a moment. Do you know what should be the next task you pick off your To Do list? It seems like a simple question but in complex environments, where a project manager may have multiple projects and be managing a number of teams, it’s actually quite hard to answer. In fact, even in large projects where the project manager is leading a single initiative, there may be several possibilities and it isn’t clear which takes priority.
In talking to project managers, it’s clear that sometimes the task that gets picked next is not the priority task. It’s the activity that a manager is chasing them to do, even if, given the bigger picture, it isn’t really that important. Project managers – and all members of the project team – will often choose their next tasks based on how they see the priorities for their workload. Ideally, this will be the same as how their managers and project sponsors see their priorities, but in some cases there is a disconnect.
The PMO has a key role to play in ensuring that strategic priorities are accurately cascaded to the project delivery teams. We should always expect team members to use their professional judgement regarding what to do next: they are, after all, employed to deliver outputs and outcomes and should be able to make the call about how to best spend their time. However, it’s a lot easier to do that (and results in less conflict) if they are effectively briefed about how the exec team sees priorities for the project. Think of this as an extension to the discussion around success criteria and how success will be judged on the project.
The health check is a good time to be ensuring that these priorities are understood and being acted on, and to answer questions about what’s important.
2. What’s the status of [pick a milestone]?
This is a question that Ponsteen and Viter ask and it is such a relevant question that it’s included verbatim here.
They say that, when asked about an arbitrary milestone, project managers are unable to predict obstacles for their project. In other words, they can’t guarantee that a milestone will be reached as planned because there are too many circumstances outside of their control.
One of the reasons for this, they suggest, is that the achievement of a milestone is dependent on resources who may also be allocated to other projects. If those projects suffer delays, the resources may not be released to work on other initiatives and hence the project manager’s project is unable to reach its milestone.
That is an issue for many project teams, especially in environments where there are multiple smaller projects and neither project manager nor team members are dedicated to a single piece of work.
This is an area where the PMO can add significant value. Managing those communication trails between project managers, facilitating discussions about resource availability, and spotting potential problems and bottlenecks where project managers can’t, are all things that the PMO can do with the right tools. Risk management is also an area that the PMO can help with: failing to meet a milestone due to resource constraints is a risk that should be foreseeable and manageable, particularly where teams are working on multiple projects.
A portfolio management approach can add a level of information about resource management, budget management and flexible scheduling. This can help project teams spot risk more effectively and plan for the impacts, with the support of the PMO as required. The health check can help pick up where resource risks are not being actively managed.
3. How is your project team performing?
In an agile environment, this might mean the Scrum Master reaches for a burndown chart or shows you how velocity is being tracked. In a waterfall environment, it’s possible that you’re answered with a set of time sheets or details of resource levelling.
What’s most important here is that there is some way of tracking past performance against tasks and that it is influencing future planning. Take a look at Gantt charts and compare actual performance against planned performance, specifically with regards to deadlines and costs. If the team is constantly overrunning and/or not meeting budget targets per task or work package, then that tells you something about the estimating on this piece of work.
Future estimates should be created with this knowledge in mind. You can drastically improve project performance if you are realistic about what can be achieved. Unfortunately, many project managers don’t have this information, or if they do, they are unable to interpret it. A project review is the perfect opportunity for some coaching to improve their skills in this area and boost the effectiveness of future estimating and planning.
Your project health checks and reviews will include more than these 3 questions, but they are a good starting point and give an insight into how the project team is approaching their work. Questions like these help the PMO uncover where support may be required and how best to give it.