Post-planning review prevents poor project performance
by David Antonioni
PROJECT MANAGERS ARE usually encouraged to conduct evaluations of their project management processes at the closeout of projects. Although end-of-project evaluations are valuable, there is another approach that may contribute more to project success and at the same time improve the organization's overall project management practices. Post-planning project management reviews can be more effective at achieving both short- and long-term company goals.
Project Management Evaluations. Project management evaluations are usually conducted by project managers and their project team members at the end of the implementation phase or at the close of a project. An evaluation differs from a project status report because it addresses the entire project life cycle: conception, planning, implementation and closeout. Objectives are evaluated, budget comparisons are made, documentation is examined, and outstanding issues identified, discussed and possibly resolved. An evaluation usually recognizes factors that contributed to the success or failure of the project. Some project managers also evaluate and complete performance appraisals for each team member based on the accountabilities established at the beginning of the project.
Project evaluations tend to be just what the name says—an evaluation—with the emphasis on feedback. Project evaluations may occur too late to do much good. Post-planning project reviews are recommended because they serve as feed forward information that can prevent problems during the project's implementation.
Post-Planning Project Management Reviews. A post-planning project review is conducted at the end of the planning phase by reviewers who are experienced professional project managers. Planning, as specified in this article, includes defining the problem to be solved, developing objectives, creating strategies for achieving objectives and constructing detailed work plans to attain objectives. Unlike a status report, a post-planning project review is conducted by someone from outside the project, not from within the project team. Project managers receive direct customized feedback and support from highly qualified reviewers. The reviews are intended to help project managers and team members improve their project management skills through on-the-job feedback and coaching. The reviews can also provide senior management with information about organizational systems issues that may affect project management throughout the company.
Post-planning project reviews may also help reduce big-impact scope changes by ensuring that the planning process is done right. A project plan review is a proactive problem prevention approach, while a project evaluation is a problem detection approach. Therefore, post-planning project reviews should minimize the possibility that project scope changes might occur during the implementation phase by making sure that the project was well conceived and planned. This should significantly increase the likelihood that projects are on time, within budget, and meet or exceed customers’ expectations.
A Survey Assessing Project Management Evaluations and Post-Planning Reviews. Approximately 200 project managers attending seminars sponsored by the University of Wisconsin- Madison responded to a brief survey assessing the extent to which they conducted project management evaluations and when they conducted the evaluations. The majority of these project managers worked on product development, engineering or information technology projects.
Project evaluations tend to emphasize feedback, which may come too late to do much good. By contrast, post-planning project reviews serve as feed forward information that can prevent problems during the project's implementation.
The results of the survey indicate that only about half of the respondents conducted project management evaluations and that the majority of these evaluations were conducted after projects had been completed. Post-planning project management reviews are rare. However, respondents to the survey indicated that post-planning reviews were more powerful in contributing to project success (on time, within budget) than evaluations conducted at the end of the project.
The most common format used by the respondents for conducting project management evaluations involved project team discussion facilitated by project leaders. One-on-one interviews, focus groups and questionnaires were less likely to be used. The evaluation data was primarily collected from team members and project managers, although in some cases customers, clients or end-users were included in the feedback processes.
Based on the results, it appears worth-while to invest resources in conducting post-planning project reviews.
Establishing a Post-Planning Project Process. An organization needs to first develop a methodology or standard operating procedures for project management. The methodology provides a frame of reference for project managers and establishes guidelines to follow when reviews are conducted. Lessons learned from reviews can then be used to update project management methodology.
The organization should then form a project management review board consisting of the project management director, an experienced project sponsor, an experienced project manager and a project team member. Ideally, a past customer of the organization's project results would also be on the board. If the organization does not have the resources to form such a board, then the project management director along with two experienced project managers should serve as the review team. If the organization does not have a project management director, then the review board could include experienced project managers. Some of the organizations in the study reported hiring a project management consultant to be a member of the review board.
Next, a project management review team should be named. This team consists of at least two experienced project managers who have good interpersonal skills as well as technical project management skills. As reviewers, the managers need to be skilled at interviewing and listening, and must be prepared to teach and coach others. Some organizations contract with a qualified consultant to conduct and teach staff members how to do the reviews.
Ideally, organizations should evaluate every project. However, because of limited resources, only select projects may be reviewed. Some of the criteria used for selecting the projects include risk, financial impact (profitability), complexity of technology and client sensitivity. In some cases, a project manager's experience may determine the need for a review. A review team can help a project manager develop knowledge and skills at the same time that it increases the likelihood of project success.
What Occurs in Post-Planning Project Reviews. During the project review all project management documents are examined: the description of the project mission, client expectations, project scope, risk analysis, work breakdown structure, master schedule, budget development and tracking, contracting strategy, procurement process, monitoring and control procedures, meeting schedules, human skill assessment, team formation, information distribution and project implementation plans. In structured interviews, reviewers ask the project manager and the project team specific questions to assess the work completed in the conception and planning phases of the project. Reviewers should prepare a list of standard questions, such as those listed in the sidebar. In addition, reviewers can also ask questions based on information they receive during the interviews.
The review data is summarized to point out strengths and areas for improvements. Reviewers can then make recommendations to help project managers adjust their procedures. A copy of the evaluation results is then sent to the project management review team or to the person in charge of the organization's project management process so that lessons learned can be disseminated to other project management teams. The organization should update its project management methodology based on information from the project reviews. The organization's culture may affect reactions to the idea of sharing the lessons learned. In some situations project teams may find it difficult to share information about their mistakes with other teams because of distrust about how the information will be used.
Questions to Ask During Project Plan Reviews
Is there a formal problem statement written for the project?
Was the problem statement shared with the customer?
What process was used to make sure there was a clear understanding of the customer's requirements?
What steps were taken to make sure the project team understood the problem statement?
What is the specific mission of the project?
Who are the stakeholders of the project?
What are the criteria for success of the project for different stakeholders?
What discrepancies of expectations exist?
How have the discrepancies been resolved?
What are the objectives of the project?
What are the specific deliverables of the project?
How are the end results of the project going to be used by the customer?
What is the scope of the project?
What are the risks of the project?
What is the contingency plan to address the risks?
Who has signed off on the project plan? What are the reporting time lines?
What knowledge, skills, and abilities do you need from project team members?
Have team members’ roles been defined?
What is the communication plan to ensure sustaining sponsorship?
Employee Responses. Organizations will most likely experience some initial resistance to conducting project management reviews until benefits are experienced. Experienced project managers generally work the best as reviewers. However, these individuals may complain about the amount of time needed to conduct the reviews. Therefore, it is essential that the organizations commit staff and time to conduct the reviews. As mentioned before, some organizations hire a qualified consultant to conduct the reviews. As a guideline, it takes approximately two days to conduct a thorough review; therefore, the project managers involved must have time allocated to the review process. The organization should make sure that project managers are recognized and rewarded for their work as project reviewers.
Organizations should begin to experience benefits from the reviews after the first year. Project success rates should increase and project managers and team members should experience skill development. Reviewers, too, should experience personal development from coaching others. As one reviewer said, “I've learned from teaching. I have a better overall understanding of the project management process because I'm conducting these reviews.”
IT MAKES GOOD SENSE to conduct a review at the end of the planning phase in order to prevent potential problems in the implementation phase. However, conducting project planning reviews requires management to modify its mindset. It is a radical change for reviews to be conducted by experienced project managers from outside the project team. It is also a change to conduct this type of review before the end of the project. Management needs to pay heed to the axiom that proper planning prevents poor project performance. One of the benefits of reviews stems from a feed forward approach—the information can be used immediately on current projects.
For best results, both project reviews and evaluations should be done. Both provide opportunities to gather information useful for improving the organization's project management process, thus increasing the probability of project success and giving the organization a competitive advantage. ■
David Antonioni is an associate professor of management at the School of Business, University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is director of the Project Management Certificate Series for the Management Institute, a continuing education unit of the School of Business, and consults with organizations implementing evaluation and feedback systems.
PM Network • October 1997