Know the Difference: Project Audits, Reviews and Assurance
As a project manager carrying out work for clients, your deliverables and processes need to be assured. After all, the client wants to know they are getting the best possible return and that the work is being managed in a way that conforms to the appropriate industry standards.
The language of project management is full of terms that relate to the action of checking what’s going on. Let’s look at what some of those terms commonly mean.
The Project Management Office may provide a project audit function. It’s an independent look at how closely you are following the processes and standards that are mandated for your particular type of project. For example, if you are supposed to be using a defined change management process, is the team adhering to that?
Audits typically involve a checklist. The person auditing your project will go through the checklist and make sure the work ticks all the boxes, providing feedback where they notice a discrepancy. The standard checklist means that all projects can be audited against the same targets and in a repeatable way.
Auditing might be led by the PMO or an independent quality function in the business. Alternatively, an experienced colleague could provide the auditing function for your project on a more informal basis.
‘Review’ is a generic term that means to look over what is happening on the project and (normally) provide some kind of feedback. They are common in government and public sector projects where there are targets and standards that must be complied with. For example, guidance on earned value management.
The Integrated Baseline Review, for example, is an opportunity for the project team to demonstrate that the project schedule and cost forecasts are adequately integrated and managed in line with EVM standards.
There are other types of review, and your organization may mandate them or make some of them optional. Equally, clients may mandate them. The process for gaining EVM certification requires a number of reviews that will be part of the formal journey towards proving your organization is capable of meeting the required standards.
The output of a review is normally a set of actions. The project team may choose to implement them, or may decide not to implement them. However, if the team is working towards EVM certification or another client-mandated standard, then it is in their interest to take the recommendations seriously and act on them. Choosing to ignore the action steps will ultimately result in not meeting client expectations.
Assurance is the function of making sure that the project is doing the right work in the right way. For example, it takes the time to review the business case and ensure that the project is still on track to deliver the expected benefits. It is a bit more than simply an audit. Audits tend to work on that ‘checklist’ approach: is the project ticking the boxes for a list of things we know to support project success?
Assurance goes deeper: it considers the context of the project, the outcomes expected and how the team is working together to achieve them. As a function, project assurance helps teams understand whether or not they are on track to complete the projects successfully, using a wide range of performance criteria.
These are all things that as a project team, you’ll be considering and thinking through on a regular basis anyway. However, there are points in a project where it makes sense to do that assessment on a more formal basis.
The assurance process is typically aimed at providing the executive stakeholders, whether they are internal budget-holders or clients, confidence that they are going to get what they expected in the most efficient way.
Like reviews and audits, you normally get a report at the end of a formal assurance review that outlines key areas for improvement. These could be technical skills like:
- making sure processes are followed
- making sure standards are adhered to
- ensuring software is used correctly.
They could just as easily highlight ‘soft’ areas for the team to improve, such as:
- ensuring project leadership is effective
- training needs
- team morale
- conflict resolution approaches.
Another area that is often highlighted is where improvements could be made to the way work is carried out, such as escalating a risk or streamlining the schedule to bring forward benefits.
Again, it’s worth the team taking this feedback seriously because the areas highlighted are critical to project success. It’s not bad news to have action areas highlighted as a result of any audit, review or assurance process.
In fact, teams should look at it as a good thing. They’ve had someone (or a review team) look at their work and provide detailed guidance on how to get a better result. That’s something we should welcome. It’s a shortcut to project success. While the process of subjecting the project to scrutiny might feel uncomfortable, the outcome should be a greater chance of delivering what the client asked for, and that has to be a good thing.
While there is some agreement about what the different jargon means, it could be that your company chooses to use the words differently. Perhaps your PMO puts the focus on the term ‘review’ because you follow earned value management best practices and that shapes how projects are looked at both internally and externally.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what terminology your organization uses. As long as people understand the process and the outcome, and what they are expected to do with the feedback, then audits, reviews and assurance will help you get closer to a successful project result.