Project success through project assurance



Congratulations! You have just been named as the manager for one of the largest, most important projects your organization has undertaken. It is your turn at the helm to have a successful project and to realize the benefits planned for your organization. Given the importance of this effort, you have been personally selected for this endeavor based your ability to deliver and your experience in developing high performing teams. As you enjoy the momentum and excitement of the project start-up, and as you visualize your ultimate success and rewards, have you considered the impact to you and to your organization if the project is not successful? As you look back, you recall that some previous projects have not gone so well for various reasons. You know there is a lot at risk with your new assignment, and what can you do now to help you improve your chances for success and avoid having a career limiting—or ending—project?

Today's economic environment has changed. There is a greater emphasis on producing more with reducing budget dollars. As such, your project must produce results more quickly than ever. The nature of projects has changed as well. As the organization has become more interconnected with its business partners, there are additional complexities in balancing the needs of many areas internal and external to your project and organization. This is a tumultuous business environment and success has a new meaning. Today, project success goes beyond the traditional “on time, on budget, and to specifications” measuring stick. Project success now means clearly accomplished project objectives, well-managed change and transition, exceeded stakeholder expectations, and measurable realized benefits. When you look at industry project performance statistics, you roughly have a 50% chance of being over budget or late, a 25% chance of failing, and only a 25% chance of succeeding. Given the complexities in project delivery, an effective process to analyze your project's likelihood for success, potential barriers, and key success indicators is a must.


If you were fortunate enough to have a device that would enable you to foresee future problems you would be able to prevent them before they happened. But since you do not have such a tool, you can utilize information to prepare yourself to anticipate where you may have problems. Given the importance of your project to your organization, and ultimately to your career, the more information you can arm yourself with the better. Your personal experience combined with your organization's collective experience will help you see what has, and has not, worked in the past. Hopefully this helps prevent previous problems from recurring.

External project performance data can help us learn from others' experience, and provide input to self evaluate what risks may be applicable in our project. These sources are useful to gauge your project and environment with others in the industry to draw comparisons on risks you may face and how they can be minimized. Many sources of information are available. You may rely on your network of project management professionals, or you may belong to a regional or vendor product user group. All of these contain useful nuggets of information to help us prepare and navigate the risks we may face in our project. There are also industry benchmark sources that collect project statistic information such as the Standish Group International, Inc. and Forrester Research.

According to the latest benchmark study published by the Standish Group (2000 CHAOS Report), overall project success metrics have improved from the 1994 study; however, this is not all-good news. In summary, their project performance research shows that:

•  49% are challenged, of these:

•  63% experience time overruns

•  45% realize cost overruns

•  23% fail

•  28% succeed, and only

•  67% of functionality is delivered.

Overall, the odds are not in your favor. Considering that your project is probably similar to others in the statistics, it is likely that you may face similar performance. Although many project managers exclaim that “it won't happen on my project,” you can reasonably expect similar challenges. It is important to understand how challenges may arise and how you can manage them so your project is not part of the wrong statistics.

Project Challenges

Project challenges and risks can arise for many reasons. The types of challenges are many, and the impact can vary depending on the scope and project approach. As organizations become more “projectized” (i.e., distinguishing between functions that are operational and projects that are special purpose) the complexity of managing risks increases. As an example, Tom Peters' book the Project50 emphasizes that everything can be viewed and approached as a project. No matter how big or small the undertaking, every thing (project) has the opportunity to be leveraged into an impactful project that transforms and improves everything from policies and procedures to a new effort.

Exhibit 1

Exhibit 1

The complexities of your project, and the maturity of your project processes will have a direct bearing on your project risk profile. You may recognize your current project, or previous projects that had characteristics such as:

•  Complex transactions or initiatives that have a significant organizational impact, such as mergers and acquisitions, spin-offs, and global initiatives

•  Significant dollar investments, such as enterprise system implementations

•  Customer and supplier initiatives such as technology implementations, portal implementations and e-markets

•  Compliance or regulatory-related initiatives that require strict assurance that objectives will be met within acceptable timelines

•  Cost reduction through outsourcing and shared services arrangements

•  Lack mature internal project methods and processes, or poor track record of project delivery

•  History of budget, schedule, status and overall project success

•  Solutions that may not be realizing expected benefits.

But you say that your project is vanilla, and will therefore be low risk because we are using an experienced vendor. Accordingly you anticipate customization will be minimal and not present any risks. You also expect that the vendor will backfill your IT organization with technical and methodology expertise. Given that only 5% of packages are purchased and implemented with no modifications according to the Standish Group, and that managing contractors presents its own unique challenges, it is a good bet that your project is not vanilla and worth a closer look.

Where to Look

As you step back to consider the landscape of your project, where can you look to anticipate potential trouble spots? Experience shows us that you will face challenges emanating from three primary areas relative to your project:

•  Business environment (external, other internal functional areas and divisions)

•  Project Framework (team structure, composition, vendors)

•  Execution (legacy systems, products part of your project, interfaces).

Business Environment

Because projects and change initiatives do not operate in isolation, but, rather, as part of a larger organization that influences their conduct and outcome in many ways, there many factors beyond the scope of your control that will impact or influence your success. It is important to consider the environmental factors of the business in which your project operates. This factors included in this area is also very similar to the scope and content referred to as the Project Context by A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide, 2000).

Project Framework

The Project Framework includes areas within the project manager's direct control—or ability to influence—such as project management structures, sponsorship, dependencies, staffing, etc. These are often guided by internal policies and procedures, but they can be significantly altered by the use of external vendors that usually utilize their own approach and tools.

Project Execution

This area focuses on the execution of project activities. The overall project scope and execution approach carries inherent risks. The scope includes all processes that are required to complete the effort and develop the product or produce the planned benefits. The execution processes include the activities performed to achieve the project's product and realize the expected benefits. Although the processes can be considered separately, these activities often occur concurrently. The actual execution is often guided by a particular development life cycle (SDLC) but also covers project activities outside of a standard SDLC, such as organization change management and benefits realization.

Exhibit 2

Exhibit 2

What is Project Assurance?

As depicted in the Exhibit 2, Project Assurance is an independent process that assesses the health and viability of a project. It is designed to provide you and executive management with a clear sense of whether a project will accomplish its objectives and if there are significant risks. The objectives of a project assurance function can include:

•  Assessing the risks and strengths of new or existing projects

•  Ensuring known requirements for project success are present-skills, processes, structures and culture

•  Providing unbiased, independent evaluation of the project's prospects for success

•  Keeping you firmly in control as the project matures

•  Working closely with project teams stakeholders to ensure that risks are collected, prioritized, and mitigated.

Project assurance is broader than quality assurance in that it spans the three areas that can impact your project (e.g., Business Environment, Project Framework, Project Execution). Quality assurance typically focuses on the processes and products within the project team. Although there are industry standards and definitions for quality activities, there are many interpretations and implementation variations of the scope of quality assurance in a risk management role. Many have used this term to define the project activities associated with testing. While others use it to define the adherence to quality procedures. In other cases, some blend the responsibilities of quality control with quality assurance. You may have experienced that the role was integrated in the project team; while in other cases it has been an external entity or functional area (e.g., Internal Audit) within your organization. If you are using a vendor to assist with your project, it is common that they have a QA role as an integrated component in their project approach. But if you look into the actual process and approach employed, you may find that the QA scope is tailored for your vendor's interest, not the success of your project.

The bottom line: there are many contributing factors to why projects succeed or fail. Our experience shows that project success rates increase when a project assurance function has been utilized. How you chose to implement a project assurance function, and how you align it with other functions in your organization and project team will greatly influence the type and independence of the information it produces.

How Can it Be Implemented?

There are a variety of models (e.g., consultative, audit, phase end, quality gates, etc.) that can be used to implement a project assurance function depending on the type of information you need and other roles within your project. One size does not fit all, as no two projects are the same. So, you will need to adapt an approach that best fits the risk profile of your project. However, one of the critical success factors is that the assurance function should be independent to fairly represent the project risks. The objective of the project assurance process is to provide a risk, status, quality review, and assessment mechanism over the activities and structure of your project. You can achieve this through formal reviews and risk assessments of the project processes and organization, project execution activities, project deliverables, and the environment within which the project operates. Using a project assurance methodology may provide a framework and wide range of support materials for undertaking the appropriate set of reviews and risk assessments for your project.

Exhibit 3

Exhibit 3

Based on your objectives, there are several assessment variations that are proven to help you understand and mange project risk. Based on your project life cycle, you may consider mapping any number of the following reviews to help you assess your risk as noted in Exhibit 3. These include the following.

Risk Assessments

Performed at any time during the course of the project, risk assessments help management identify risk areas and evaluate their potential impact on project success. Key drivers of project success are used to evaluate the project and provide a scorecard on relative project performance. The evaluation will facilitate identification and prioritization of key project risks that are most relevant to the project's success.

Quality “Checkpoint” Reviews

Also know as Gate reviews, these can be executed in a series of reviews. Checkpoint reviews are focused on evaluating the high level and detailed project processes and outcomes. The reviews occur over the life of the project and are focused on the critical tasks at the particular time in the project. These tasks can be used to recommend improvements to critical processes and deliverables and to focus management attention on project risks and developing mitigation strategies where appropriate.

Operational “Go-Live” Readiness

Performed shortly before implementation or project completion, this type of review is used to confirm that the people, processes, and systems are ready to adopt the changes to be implemented. This type of review can help identify major risks that may affect the project's success and allows the organization to plan accordingly.


A necessary last step toward ensuring project success, these reviews enable management to confirm the benefits of the project by evaluating whether the business and system goals have been achieved. These reviews help identify areas that may need additional attention to promote project benefits, such as organizational change adoption, operational support, or revising new processes and procedures. Post-implementation reviews also provide an opportunity for accumulating lessons learned and best practices that can be applied to ongoing project initiatives.


The value of project assurance approach compared with other alternatives is that is provides you with a holistic view of risk facing you and your project. Many project challenges are evident from the start, and building processes to help you monitor and manage project risk will help you reduce the cost of your project. As project manager, a project assurance function is another tool in your tool kit to help you reduce risk associated with your project investments and your tactical project activities. Your confidence will increase knowing that your project will meet targeted goals and achieve expected outcomes. Project assurance activities will give you clear visibility of your project risks and strengths and help you:

•  Clarify and assess the accuracy and relevance of scope

•  Validate and communicate project progress and risks

•  Evaluate and quantify project processes against benchmarks

•  Ensure project accountability and stakeholder management.

Armed with proactive information about your project status you will be in a better position to anticipate and prevent issues that lead to cost and schedule overruns. The focus of project assurance is preventive vs. detective. Not only will you understand where you have been, but also you will clearly see where difficulties exist going forward. Preventing downstream defects and project delays will help you improve the performance of your project delivery by:

•  Identifying strengths and weaknesses of project approach

•  Recommending effective project, process and technology controls

•  Validating progress and potential to meet goals

•  Enabling effective project reporting and communication.

Given today's economic drivers, projects must not only accomplish the project objectives successfully, but they must also add measurable value back to the organization while effectively managing the risks associated with the change and transition. Your project assurance will help you realize anticipated project benefits by:

•  Measuring achievement of business case and strategy

•  Focusing on operational readiness

•  Assessing change integration and organization acceptance.


Peters, Tom. 1999. Project50. Alfred A. Knopf Inc.

Standish Group. 2001, CHAOS Chronicles, The Standish Group.

Project Management Institute. 1996. A Guide to the Project management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide). Upper Darby, PA: Project Management Institute.

PricewaterhouseCoopers L.L.P. Project Assurance Methodology, April 2002.

Proceedings of the Project Management Institute Annual Seminars & Symposium
October 3–10, 2002 • San Antonio, Texas, USA