Project Reviews: Effectively Managing Risk and Reward

By Graham Oakes | 20 Jan 2014

Sometimes projects fail and most of the time these failures are completely avoidable. Manage the risk with a stringed project review process, writes Graham Oakes.

Digital service development is about risk. We take on market, design and technical risk in order to gain rewards – better conversion rates, increased sales, new products, etc.

Sometimes the risks win. We misread the market, fall short with our designs, fail to get on top of the technology, get beaten by the competition. And so our projects fail.

All too often, these failures happen for entirely manageable reasons: ill-defined scope, poor communications, bad stakeholder management, or ill-judged estimates and deadlines. Perhaps the project management literature has been flagging such risks for decades. By and large, we know how to mitigate these things – we just don’t do it.

That’s our real failure – we fail to identify and manage these basic risks.

Why? Our projects are complex. There’s a lot going on – the team, the technology, internal politics, a rapidly shifting market. Many project managers get overwhelmed. It’s easy for them to overlook emerging risks until it’s too late.

Project reviews can help manage this. They provide external perspective, helping project managers get a better feel for what’s going on within their project. Reviews help spot risks before they blow up and become unmanageable.

Likewise, reviews help executives understand what’s really happening within the organisation. Given clear insight into project status, they’re able to reallocate resources, adjust budgets and deadlines, redefine objectives, in response to changing circumstances.

How can you make this happen? Here are nine factors behind effective project reviews:

  1. Reviews are the norm. If you only review troubled projects, project managers will resist reviews – no-one wants to admit their project is in trouble. And unscheduled reviews create a lot of overheads. Make reviews normal, and you avoid overheads and resistance.
  2. Reviews fit the project. Review teams can operate in different ways – drilling deep via structured “gateway reviews”, monitoring trends via regular, lightweight peer reviews. They can bring different types of expertise to bear. Design a review programme that fits the project’s needs and circumstances.
  3. Clear objectives. A review can’t cover every aspect of a project in depth. If you want to go deep, you need to focus. If you want broad coverage, it’ll be shallow. Consider T-shaped reviews – a shallow pass to identify risks, then a deep dive into the top two or three. Whichever way you do things, ensure everyone understands the objectives.
  4. Minimal overheads. Project teams don’t have spare capacity to create special artefacts for reviewers. Review teams need to work from existing project documents, information radiators, etc. And they need to manage interviews and suchlike carefully, to keep the overheads down.
  5. Evidence. Opinions are cheap. Real value comes when you unravel all the different opinions and identify what is really going on. An effective review gathers solid evidence to back its assessment. This ensures its findings will be accepted, and helps people take action to mitigate the risks it uncovers.
  6. Manage logistics. Reviews require a lot of logistics – setting up security passes, scheduling meetings, booking rooms, getting access to repositories. If you don’t manage this, the review will get bogged down before it’s begun.
  7. Actionable findings. If people ignore the findings, the review was a waste of time and effort. Review teams need to ensure their findings are well argued, with a clear chain of evidence, and a clear link to actions that will demonstrably mitigate the risks.
  8. Feedback. Reviewers operate under a lot of time pressure. They need to rapidly get up to speed with complex projects. They’ll make mistakes too. Build in feedback mechanisms to help them learn from experience and hence minimise these mistakes.
  9. Organisational learning. Look for common themes and trends within review findings – reviews often highlight organisational issues that affect multiple projects. And once they’ve identified such issues, review teams are well placed to spread the knowledge more widely as they touch each project.

Reviews are a great way to bring fresh perspective and expertise to your projects. This helps people identify and contain risks before they blow up.

This doesn’t happen for free. Effective reviews require time and effort from both reviewers and project teams. But the cost of reviews, typically a couple of percent of overall project cost, is well worthwhile when you consider the cost of the project failures they can prevent.

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