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Project Check-Ups Keep Your Projects Healthy

Good preventive care includes regular check-ups to make sure things are running well and small issues get resolved before major problems can surface. This applies to people, cars, and yes, projects too! Here are some tips for implementing a simple process to keep your fingers on the pulse of project health.

There are many important systems we count on to keep running efficiently every day. But anyone who has ever owned a car or a house has probably learned a lesson along the way about getting equipment serviced periodically to ensure that potential issues are corrected before major damage ensues. And we certainly know that a regular appointment for a physical at the doctor’s office is a great way to monitor health and identify disease in time to take action. The same lessons apply to the projects in our portfolios. These are typically significant investments, and we count on our project managers and teams to keep them moving forward. Most organizations face staffing challenges – few PMO’s have the bandwidth to conduct full and regular audits of all projects. Yet, this creates the risk that unresolved (or unseen) issues could eventually derail a project or cause substantial rework that could have been avoided if detected sooner.

Enter the “Project Check-up” – a simple approach to monitoring project health and compliance with the organization’s standards and desired behaviors. The idea here is to define a straightforward set of characteristics to check, allocate a small amount of time from your more experienced project managers, and perform quick “Check-Ups” throughout the year. It’s a good strategy for reinforcing key standards, developing staff and raising the overall level of project management. Implementations of this approach will vary from one organization to the next, but here are some tips:

What to check?

The first step is defining what should be evaluated as part of a Project Check-Up. The key is to focus on what truly drives success without getting overwhelmed by too much detail. The list will vary but should probably include items such as: Are roles and responsibilities clearly defined and understood by team members? Are risks and issues being surfaced and addressed? Is governance in place to set business direction, resolve issues, manage scope creep and approve key deliverables? Are regular status meetings being conducted? Are status reports issued? Are project milestones and spending being tracked against budget? Note that PMO’s tend to have standard tools and templates useful for all of these, but these questions are more about how well people understand and leverage them, rather than just simply whether or not a standard format is being used.

How to check?

Now it’s a matter of assigning some of the more experienced project managers to each perform a Project Check-Up for a project outside of their particular domain. This involves getting an orientation to the project and reviewing key deliverables from the project repository. Then project team members should be interviewed to help the evaluator get a sense for how well things are going in terms of the agreed Project Check-Up criteria. There is no substitute for one-on-one conversation, although typically these do not need to be long, 30-45 minutes is typically more than enough. Then the evaluator summarizes their findings based on the agreed Project Check-Up criteria and reviews them with the project leadership and sponsor (and PMO leader). The results will be one or more of the following:

  • An Action Plan for the project to address issues, investigate further or take other corrective steps
  • An Action Plan for the PMO leader and/or the project manager to better develop skills, clarify standards OR to share tips for success with other project managers
  • Recognition for the things that the project team is doing well

How to launch?

A Project Check-Up should take no more than a few days’ time for the project manager performing the evaluation. This may mean that each PM can only do one or two of these per year. It is a tremendous developmental experience for PM’s, allowing them to step outside of all the day-to-day issues of their particular responsibilities and really focus on what it takes to be successful – perspective that can translate back to their day-to-day load. It may not be possible to cover all projects, but ideally you will be able to touch enough projects so that most project participants experience at least one which provides a good developmental experience for them too.

How does this make a difference?

Over time this practice becomes self-reinforcing; as people become more and more familiar with the Project Check-Up criteria, they start to apply them without waiting for an official check-up. This applies both to Project Managers and project team members. The upshot is that all projects benefit even if it is not practical to check up on all of them. This positive behavior can be reinforced by making the Project Check-Up process and results transparent across the organization where practical. The Project Check-Up process should not be treated like an audit (where findings are bad!) but rather as an important continual improvement tool that raises the level of success for everyone contributing to projects and project teams.

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About the Writers

Kathy Bellwoar is the President and Founder of PPT Consulting and has over twenty-five years of experience within industry and as a partner of a major global consulting firm prior to founding PPT Consulting. She has managed numerous strategic technology projects from software selection to implementation, and from establishing IT strategy to optimizing business processes. Her key to project success has always been to ensure the key components of People, Process & Technology are addressed in the delivery of all solutions.

Elizabeth Martens is Director, Client Services with PPT Consulting and has over 20 year experience as a senior technology leader. She has extensive experience in managing technology investments and resources to align with business strategy and drive results. She has worked with clients to implement project and program management capabilities, build communications plans, launch and monitor major software implementations and develop more effective ties within and across organizations.

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