How healthy is your project? (An introduction to a healthcheck process)

Abstract

With new and changing technology, geographical challenges, and increasing demands for personnel and time, even small projects can be difficult to complete on time, on schedule, and within the original proposed scope. The ability to honestly assess the health of a project becomes even more difficult as projects increase in scope, magnitude, and complexity. This paper will explore some common symptoms of “sick” projects and will address some alternative approaches to assessing the health of an active project. These approaches, while less scientific than an earned value assessment, take into account the softer skills of project and team management. This paper will address some key questions which should be asked on any project. It will also explore the use of a Healthcheck template and provide an overview of a Healthcheck process.

Introduction

A reporter once asked Yogi Berra, “How are things going for you?” He answered “I'm straddling the other side of the fence right now.” (HumorMatters™, 1999)

If you are a manager, a project manager, a project sponsor, or a vested stakeholder, do you really know “how things are going for your project?” You may get status reports and you may actually get some that give you a feel for the progress of the project. But how do you know if you're project is sick or harboring a dangerous silent symptom of a fatal disease?

I believe that projects in all industries can benefit from periodic project Healthchecks. Per reports produced by the Standish Group, it is apparent that Information Technology (IT) projects could benefit from alternative approaches to assessing project status. Per the CHAOS report produced by The Standish Group, more than half (53%) of the IT projects surveyed in 2004 were over schedule, over budget, or short on promised features and functions, or per The Standish Group, “challenged.” (Standish Group, 2005).

The Healthcheck process proposed in this paper is based on the premise that project successes in any organization may improve through the simple process of asking a few questions periodically of the project manager and the project team members to assess the health of a project. As odd as it may or may not seem, I believe that even just the intent to conduct project health assessments leads to a heightened awareness of the project's health and in doing so, may improve the quality of the project without ever executing a single health assessment.

I believe that one of the key benefits of a Project Healthcheck is that it allows an opportunity to assess the project without bias and in a way that cannot usually be performed by someone too close to the project. Other benefits include the following:

  • Obtaining a “clean bill of health” for a healthy project.
  • Prevention of a potential project disease (poor communications, incomplete scope, etc.).
  • Detection of subtle symptoms which, if missed, could turn into significant issues.
  • An improved knowledge of the project and its status (knowledge that may not be uncovered through normal status reporting).
  • An assurance that proven processes are being used to increase the chance of project success.
  • A general improvement of the quality of project life.
  • Prescriptions for actions to resolve uncovered problems or potential problems.

This paper will explore what you as a sponsor or project manager should know about your project, symptoms of poor health, several key questions to be asked, and a Healthcheck process.

What You Should Know

As a Project Sponsor

As the project sponsor, it's your project, your investment, your reputation, and possibly your future on the line. How well have you articulated the mission of your project? As Yogi Berra once said, “You got to be careful if you don't know where you're going, because you might not get there.” (Thinkexist.com, 2001).

How clear is your Vision for the project? How clear is your Vision for the product of the project? How well is your Vision being communicated to the team responsible for executing the project? Can your project pass the Vision test?

As a project sponsor, do you understand your own definition of success? Does the project manager understand your definition of success? If you, as the project sponsor, are not sure of your definition of success, work with your project manager to set these expectations. Harold Kerzner, in his book, In Search of Excellence in Project Management, (1998) states that success is defined in “terms of five factors:

  • Completed on time
  • Completed within budget
  • Completed at the desired level of quality
  • Accepted by the customer
  • Resulted in customer allowing the contractor to use the customer as a reference.”

Kerzner also states that “project managers and their managers now accept that project quality (and project success) is determined by the customer not the contractor.” (p. 25). Are your definitions of success different than these or similar?

Once you understand your own definition of success, what is the probability of success? Do you have a rock-bottom guarantee or a wish?

As a Project Sponsor, you should understand your level of trust in the Project Manager and the project team to deliver your Vision and execute your project. Kerzner states that “trusting everyone involved in executing a project is critical.” (p. 197). Trust results from a relationship or is inherited from someone you trust. How well do you trust your team to execute the project?

As a Project Manager

As the Project Manager, it's your project, your reputation, your earnings, and your future on the line. How well do you know the expectations for the project and its outcomes? Do you know your client's expectations? Do you know your management's expectations? Do you know who the stakeholders are and their expectations? Do you know the expectations for success?

As the Project Manager, what is the foundation for success? Do you have the right resources to deliver? Are the project objectives SMART: Specific, Measurable, Action-oriented, Realistic, and Time-bound? Are you, as the Project Manager, confident that you can deliver within any organizational or political constraints placed on the project or the team? Does the organizational structure of the executing team help or hinder success?

As the Project Manager, how predictable is the success of the project? What are the risk factors? Do you know the key risks? What is your comfort level with the experience of the team? Do you trust your team? Do you have a system or methodology in place to help you deliver repeatable successes?

Symptoms of Sick Projects

This section briefly identifies some of the common symptoms of sick projects. Of course, some of these symptoms are minor and some major but if left unchecked, any of these could lead to missed objectives and overall project failure. If you are a sponsor, a manager, a project manager, or a vested project stakeholder, and you find yourself answering “yes” to these questions, then, most likely, you are suffering a “sick” project.

Confusion

Does confusion prevail more than order? Are team members confused about roles and responsibilities? Is leadership or direction absent? Are tasks and assignments vague? If assigned tasks, are team members blindly following tasks without understanding the bigger picture?

Failing Vision

Have your team members lost the Vision of the project? Is the original Vision failing due to conflicting priorities or other projects with a higher sense of urgency? Has the team forgotten the urgency of this project? Has the enthusiasm of the initial beginning of the project faded? Are day-to-day responsibilities obscuring the original Vision of the project?

Loss of Hearing

Are the right words being said but not heard? If plans have been made and communicated, but not being followed, obviously, there is a loss of hearing, or a lack of leadership.

Distraction

Are team members distracted? Are personal priorities or agendas taking precedence over project execution? Are tasks taking much longer than they should?

Scope Sickness

Is the scope ill-defined or weak? Does the scope change without an understanding of impact? Is the work expanding without adding resources? Is scope sickness causing team stress?

Droopy Schedule

Is the schedule ill-defined or weak? Is the schedule non-existent? Is the schedule defined by only a single target completion date? Are those anchoring milestones absent? Is the project timeline outdated and no longer used as the basis for planning and decision-making?

Seven Key Questions

This section introduces the seven key questions which can be used to assess a project's health. These questions can be used for a quick assessment of a project and can be asked informally. I suggest that these questions be used by Project Sponsors or key stakeholders if they do not understand the status of a project.

Question 1: What's the Vision?

Ask this question of those in charge and those being charged. Ideally, the vision can be articulated at all levels of the project organization. If those in charge cannot clearly articulate the Vision in a few short sentences, I would question whether anyone on the project really understands the objectives of the project. A misunderstood Vision can lead to confusion, frustration, distraction, and of course, scope sickness. If you ask this question of the team members, do the team members understand the significance of their contributions to the Vision?

I believe that the Vision of the project is one of the most critical factors for success. Developing the Vision is a critical exercise in communications between the Project Sponsor, the Project Manager, and the Project Stakeholders. As Winnie the Pooh says, “Before beginning a hunt, it is wise to ask someone what you are looking for before you begin looking for it.” (Winnie the Pooh quotes, 2005)

Question 2: Who's in charge?

This question speaks directly to the leadership of the project. Who is really leading the project? Are the leaders leading or being led? Who is providing direction and decision-making? Are the lines of communication and decision-making clearly defined? Is there one decision maker clearly in charge or do decisions get made by committee? If decisions are made by committee, is the committee effective in making decisions?

Question 3: What's expected?

Ask this question of those in charge and those being charged. Missed expectations can lead to a perception that an otherwise well-executed project is failing or has failed. Are the expectations of the client clearly understood? Are the expectations of the individual team members also clearly defined? Poorly defined expectations can lead to missed budgets, missed schedules, rework, and poor team morale.

Question 4: What's the risk?

Ask this question of those in charge and those being charged. The plan can't possibly be considered complete if the risks to project success are not clearly understood; yet, many projects are often started without the identification of key risks. Just as important as identifying risks is the awareness of risks by all team members. If the individual team members do not understand the key risks, the probability of those risks occurring increases.

Question 5: Who's doing what?

Are roles and responsibilities clearly defined? Are the right resources doing the right things at the right time? If confusion exists over roles or assignments, this can lead to missed milestones, rework situations, missed objectives, and eventually, a failed project.

Question 6: How are we doing it?

Ask this question to understand if the project team is using a system or methodology for executing the project and producing results. Does the team embrace the system or methodology or consider it an impediment to success? A solid system is built on trust and can empower the team to do what is required to be successful. A solid system will allow team members to be more effective than they could be without the system.

Question 7: What happens if…?

What happens if something changes? This question helps to frame the project team's ability to absorb and manage change. Change happens, but what is critical to the project's success is how the team reacts to change. “Freezing” change from occurring is not always the answer. Managing change and balancing change against conflicting priorities and objectives is critical. A system or methodology for managing change embraced by all stakeholders ensures that change will be managed effectively.

A Healthcheck Process

A Healthcheck process can improve the overall health of projects in an organization. The process can lead to a higher quality of execution and to an improved success rate. This section introduces the Healthcheck process by addressing the “what, how, and how often” of the process.

What

A Healthcheck process is a brief review of the project by a party external to the project. The process can be performed by a peer manager, an external entity, the project sponsor, or, if it exists in the organization, by a Project Management Office (PMO). I recommend that the review be brief. The process can be as simple as asking a few key questions (such as the seven listed above) or by using a more formal list of questions.

If used effectively, a Healthcheck process can provide a “clean bill of health” or identify areas requiring attention. A Healthcheck can and should initiate an action plan to address found symptoms.

How

I suggest the following six step process for conducting a Healthcheck:

  1. Schedule the Healthcheck.
  2. Request and review key documents (Vision Statement, Project Charter, Scope, etc.).
  3. Ask key questions.
  4. Complete the checklist (or survey).
  5. Document the results.
  6. Determine a plan of action (if needed).

How Often

I suggest the following regarding timing of Healthchecks:

  • Schedule periodic Healthchecks. Schedule them more often for complex or long-term projects.
  • Conduct unscheduled Healthchecks. All though the timing of these may be a surprise, these should be expected as “standard operating procedure.” If you're the project manager, expect to be surprised every now and then.
  • Allow Healthchecks to be requested by your management, by your customer, or by any key stakeholder. If requested, schedule and conduct the Healthcheck promptly.

The Checklist and Questions

This section briefly touches on each of the sections of a suggested checklist along with a few key questions. These questions form a template that can be used by an organization to conduct a Healthcheck on a project. These questions can then be weighted to fit the organization's culture. I suggest aligning the questions along the nine Areas of Knowledge in A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide).

Communications

The purpose of this section should be to determine if communications, leadership, and management are clearly in place. Some specific questions to be included in the checklist are the following:

  • Does the project have a documented Vision Statement?
  • Do all team members understand the Vision?
  • Has a Communications Plan been developed for the project?

Some open ended questions to be asked should include questions of leadership style, team communications, and expectations.

Integration

The purpose of this section should be to determine if a plan has been documented and is being followed. Some specific questions to be included in the checklist are the following:

  • Does the project have a documented project plan?
  • Is the project plan used as the basis for tracking progress and making decisions?
  • Has a change process been implemented and is it being used?

Open ended questions should focus on the team's acceptance of the plan and the change management processes.

Scope

The purpose of this section should be to determine if the scope is defined well enough to lead to project success. Specific questions to be included in the checklist are the following:

  • Has a scope statement been documented?
  • Has a scope management plan been documented?
  • Are scope changes clearly identified?

Open ended questions can help determine the team's awareness of scope, impact of scope change, and an understanding of expectations.

Time

The purpose of this section should be to determine if the schedule has been defined well enough to lead to project success. Specific questions to be included in the checklist are the following:

  • Has the schedule been documented?
  • Does the schedule include milestones?
  • Is there a system in place to measure progress?

Open ended questions can help determine the team's awareness of the schedule and progress.

Cost

The purpose of this section should be to determine if costing processes have been developed and whether the project is maintaining cost objectives. Specific questions to be included in the checklist are the following:

  • Has a budget been documented?
  • Are actual expenses tracked against budgeted expenses?
  • Are cost forecasts regularly developed?

Open ended questions can help determine the awareness of the budget, project “run-rates,” and the forecast.

Risk

The purpose of this section should be to determine if Risks have been identified and managed. Specific questions to be included in the checklist are the following:

  • Have the key risks been identified?
  • Has a Risk Management plan been documented?
  • Has a Risk Response plan been documented?

Quality

The purpose of this section should be to determine if quality measures are in place for both the project and the product of the project. Specific questions to be included in the checklist are the following:

  • Has a quality plan been developed?
  • Are systems or methodologies in place to help improve the quality of the project and the product?

Open ended questions should help determine the acceptance of the quality measures and systems in place.

Human Resources

The purpose of this section should be to determine if resources are properly being used on the project. Specific questions to be included in the checklist are the following:

  • Has a resource plan been documented?
  • Have roles and responsibilities been clearly defined?

Open ended questions should help determine an awareness of roles and the team morale.

Procurement

The purpose of this section should be to determine if processes are in place to manage interaction with the vendors and suppliers. Specific questions to be included in the checklist are the following:

  • Have contracts been approved for all participating vendors?
  • Are Statements of Work (SOW's) in place for all vendors providing services to the project?

Open ended questions should help determine the relationships with the vendors.

Results

The purpose of this section should be to present results graphically. The results will indicate which areas of the project require attention.

Conclusion

If you are not already using a Healthcheck process to evaluate the health of your projects, consider implementing this process to help improve not only the health of your projects but the health of your organization.

References

Kerzner. H. (1998). In Search of Excellence in Project Management. New York N.Y.: Van Nostrand Reinhold

Notable Quotables (1999). Retrieved from HumorMatters™, web site: http://www.humormatters.com/

Project Management Institute. (2000) A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK® Guide 2000 ed). Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

Quotations by Author – Yogi Berra (1994). Retrieved 03/28/05 from The Quotations Page, Quotations by Author, web site: http://www.quotationspage.com/quotes/Yogi_Berra/

Standish Group (2004) CHAOS Demographics and Project Resolution – excerpt from Third Quarter 2004. Retrieved 03/28/05 from The Standish Group, Sample Research Web site: http://www.standishgroup.com/sample_research/index.php

Winnie the Pooh quotes (2001). Retrieved from Thinkexist.com, web site: http://www.thinkexist.com/

Yogi Berra Quotes (2001). Retrieved from Thinkexist.com, web site: http://www.thinkexist.com/

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

© 2005, Eddie Merla, PMP
Originally published as a part of 2005 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Toronto, Canada

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