The Importance of the Project Review
As project professionals, we seem to constantly be bombarded with yet another challenge. We are confronted with new technologies, more competitive markets, open-ended requirements, reorganizations and downsizing, limited funding, and many other concerns. With the complexity of our projects, the use of virtual teams for so much of our work, and the emphasis on speed and innovation, there is no time available for rework. The list of challenges is huge. Everyone in project management faces some of them every day. But, effectively chosen and delivered projects mean competitive advantage and sustained growth.
One of the more important functions of the Project Management Office (PMO) is ensuring a quality project. Quality has long been recognized as one the critical components of the triple constraint, and the Project Management Institute, in its A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) - 2000 Edition, defines quality as “the totality of characteristics of an entity that bear on its ability to satisfy stated or implied needs.” Projects must satisfy the needs for which they are undertaken. The project should meet business objectives with a positive impact to the customer. This includes staying within the budget, meeting the delivery schedule, and ensuring a quality product.
But, all too often, success in project management is elusive. Projects are late, over budget, or never get delivered at all. Often, what is delivered is incomplete, inaccurate, or fails to deliver the business benefits the project originally anticipated.
The point at which organizations realize that a project is out of control varies from organization to organization and is directly related to the organizational sophistication in planning projects and their persistence in monitoring project performance. An important evaluation, or self-evaluation, the project review, must be conducted at this juncture. The objective is not only to conduct a realistic determination of the progress of deliverables but also to perform a careful analysis of the causes of the malperformance. Naturally, such an analysis must be devoid of emotions and internal politics in order to be useful (Rad & Levin, 2002).
Characteristics of a Project Review
Here, we are using the term project review to be a regularly scheduled meeting held to assess the status and report the progress of the project. We are also using the term to describe a review conducted at the end of each project. Our premise is that the project review is a useful tool and technique that is often overlooked by the project manager and the project team. Project reviews are required in order to determine whether or not projects should continue to receive resources. It is important to take a periodic look at the project from a strategic perspective to ensure that the project continues to provide support to the organization's mission and to ensure that it is consistent with organizational strategy. And, an effective and comprehensive project review can certainly uncover essential information including what went right and what went wrong. It can serve as the most effective way to improve overall project performance, leading to greater likelihood that the product will meet the customer's requirements. The intent is to foster objective insight into practices and procedures to improve processes for future products and services.
As Meredith and Mantel (2000) state, there are both direct goals and ancillary goals for such reviews. Direct goals relate to how well the project team is meeting the stated project objectives, while ancillary goals relate to the unplanned but important contributions to both the project and the performing organization, such as improving the project management processes, identifying strengths and weaknesses and risk factors, and improving the way projects contribute to the growth of project professionals. They explain that these “ancillary goals are rarely disclaimed; they are merely not mentioned” (Meredith & Mantel, 2000, p. 513).
For these reviews to be as effective as possible, a standard review format is required. Interim objectives for the project at each life-cycle stage are useful to monitor progress toward achieving project goals and objectives and to identify any risks and opportunities at the earliest feasible point. Actual results achieved then can be reviewed against these established interim objectives. And, if it is necessary for the project to get back on track in order to meet its objectives, actions needed to be able to meet future objectives can be specified. This early warning can enable the project manager to take timely, corrective action.
Also helpful are a standard agenda, a detailed description of roles, and a clear definition of the responsibilities. The purpose of each review should be clear. It should be conducted with a focus on the project adhering to the project management processes or methodology. An emphasis on all the impacted groups and the overall business benefit should also be an area of assessment to ensure that project coordination issues receive relevant attention. The review may end up with the need to accelerate the schedule, add additional budget, add or redirect resources, change the requirements in response to a change in opportunities or customer needs, or even to terminate the project.
Additionally, project managers need to know how often reviews will be conducted, who will do them, and who will attend each session. Those who participate in the review sessions should be stakeholders who are contributing to the project, involved in its ultimate outcome, or who can influence its progress at any point in the project. Coordination and collaboration with key stakeholders are essential. For internal projects, involvement of ultimate users in these reviews forces them to become involved in and make a contribution to the ultimate end results of the project.
As Ply (2001) notes, project managers feel threatened by reviews and will go to great lengths to come up with “‘reasons”’ why their projects should be exempt from reviews. It is important to ensure that project managers buy into the usefulness of the project review so that it is embraced as a useful tool to the project manager. Ply stresses the importance of doing reviews for the right reasons, but also states that basically, there are not really any good excuses for not conducting them on every project. Project professionals must realize that the reviews must be targeted and realistic. As a result, it is necessary to ensure the review is a useful way to spend time, and its preparation, conduct, and documentation should not be viewed as a project into itself.
The Role of the Project Management Office
The PMO can serve as a focal point for each review. First, it can establish and maintain an organizational policy for planning and performing the review process. This includes a statement of the objectives of the reviews so that the reviews are not simply an opportunity for a show and tell status session that only serves to enable executives to sign-off on progress made thus far to enable the project to then continue to the next review point. The reviews need to take on different dimensions focusing on business decisions and issues as well as technical concerns. The review policy also should state when reviews are to be conducted so that they occur at meaningful points in the project schedule. It can contain a standard format for a review agenda.
Second, the PMO staff can provide direct assistance to the project manager and to the project teams in helping to prepare for the review. This includes gathering key documentation prior to each review, distributing it to attendees in advance of the meeting, and preparing a specific review agenda, following the standard format.
Then, during the review, the PMO staff can help facilitate the sessions so that they are conducted in a neutral, objective way, as all the work products should be evaluated objectively against the organization's standard project management processes and procedures. The intent should be not to have a show and tell session but rather to ensure that the focus is on identifying key practices that need correction or that should be employed on other projects in the organization. This can serve to heighten awareness of effective project management practices and processes. The PMO staff can help encourage participation, ensure compliance with the standard agenda, and promote adherence to the prescribed starting time and ending time.
Fourth, the PMO staff can prepare and distribute minutes of each review, including action items that were discussed. Finally, periodically, the PMO staff can take a look at the process that is being followed and analyze data about its preparation, conduct, and results. This can ensure that strengths, weaknesses, and improvement opportunities are periodically identified (Rad & Levin, 2002).
The Final Project Review
And, at the end of each project, a final review should be conducted. This review is not used to assess performance in a negative fashion, but instead to provide an opportunity to objectively look back at the project, to reflect on experiences, to identify things that should have been done differently, and to identify other things that were done in a manner that should be repeated on future projects. A project that produces its desired product can also result in an improved process and a list of recommendations for enterprise project management improvements (Rad & Levin, 2002). The success of the project can be assessed on many levels, such as adherence to processes and methodology, quality deliverables, customer satisfaction, and business needs achieved. The final review of the project should determine if the benefit of operating expense reduction or generation of increased revenue was attained. It also can show where the corporate project management process is successful, and where improvements may be needed. As Kerzner (2000) explains, if lessons learned are not documented, a company can quickly revert from maturity to immaturity in project management. This means that knowledge is lost, and past mistakes are repeated.
Setting Up a Project Review Process
The considerations for setting up a project review process are the following:
1. Determine the types of projects to review. For example, revenue generating and operating reduction projects over $500,000, but not projects that “keep the doors open.”
2. Determine the areas that should be reviewed for the project. Will the review team assess:
• Financial information including projected benefits, budget, actual and realized benefits
• Methodology and project management adherence
• Observance to company policies such as regulations, security, and IT standards
• Fulfillment of business objectives.
3. Identify the required expertise of the review members based on the areas of the project that will be reviewed. See Exhibit 1.
4. Develop a meeting process for the review.
• Create a procedure to schedule reviews. Will the project manager call the PMO to set up a meeting or will the PMO schedule the meetings? Will a scheduling tool be used? What are the guidelines concerning the length of the review, notifying review members, and the required advanced notice for scheduling a meeting?
• Select a group to facilitate the reviews. This may be a central group not attached to a business area like the PMO or the Quality Assurance staff.
• State the purpose of the review. A project manager should know the reason for the review and the questions that will be asked. No surprises should occur at the meeting.
• Prepare an agenda for the review including purpose, reviewers, length and location.
• Prepare a list of questions for the review. Make the questions available on a shared site so the project manager can prepare answers prior to the meeting. No pop quizzes should be allowed in the review meeting.
• Communicate the status of the project to the project manager at the end of the review meeting. As the meeting is progressing, the project manager should be able to see the outcome. The facilitator may indicate that the project should continue, should be placed temporarily on hold, or should stop. Any questions or issues during the review should be assigned with a set period of time for their resolution.
5. Use of the project review information can be for project portfolio health, coaching, project manager development plans, and strategy for project management efforts.
• The health of the project portfolio allows the business to determine how many projects are on track and to determine the length of each project to know how many projects per year can be completed and the resource skills required within the organization to execute projects. These can be tracked as metrics to validate the accomplishments and requirements of project execution.
• Coaching the project managers is a valuable resource, as reviewers see many projects and can assist a project manager with issues. The reviewer becomes able to see patterns of success and improvement by listening to the issues of project managers as they execute their projects.
• Developing project managers becomes easier, as strengths on projects become visible. As a project manager establishes his or her development plan, incorporating areas of interest in project management are easier to see and justify. For example, a project manager may enjoy projects with vendor negotiations and therefore could pursue more training to strengthen that skill. Or another project manager may enjoy projects involving coordination of the efforts of a multifunctional team and could pursue more team development training. Another plus is being able to match the right project to the right project manager. If a project manager repeatedly executes infrastructure projects, the company stands to benefit from assigning this project manager those types of projects where he or she will become an expert. This provides the project manager with an opportunity to excel and the company with an opportunity to meet its objectives with less risk.
• As projects are reviewed, future strategies unfold so that the most important techniques and issues are being addressed. The structure of the reviews will allow the facilitating group to identify patterns that would not be noticed without a consistently looking at each project.
Every project must be reviewed carefully as it is conducted to determine whether it should continue to be pursued and also after it has been completed to determine where the corporate project management process was successful and where improvements are required. New developments occur in this discipline continually, and the corporate process and systems must continually be improved to reflect the lessons learned and newly available systems and procedures. Over time, results from project reviews become part of the organization's knowledge management system, which can be used to then gauge future project performance.