Is assurance the next big thing?

The next big thing


I propose that assurance is the next big topic in programme and project management. I am reading more about it, customers are asking about it (though not yet for it!), and we have just finshed a new qualification for people doing project and programme assurance with our partner Aspire. The catalyst for this article is an excellent white paper from our partner Bestoutcome on the importance of Gateway reviews for assurance.

What is an assurance review?

The Bestoutcome white paper argues that too many projects and programmes zoom away doing the work they have planned without thinking about how they are doing that work; if it is still worthwhile; or if they could be doing the same work more effectively and efficiently. That is the quality of execution is not on their radar. The paper quotes the “I have started so I will finish” mentality. A gateway review is one of several types of assurance activity that address the delivery quality dimension:

  • Gateway review: this is a formal review undertaken at key decision points in the lifecycle of a project or programme in which both the business case for the activity as well as the quality of execution so far are considered.
  • Capability review (P3M3): this is a review of most of the project or programme work in an organisation to look at the overall quality of execution.
  • Peer review: is a quality review, usually scheduled well in advance, carried out by peer project or programme staff within the organisation.
  • Health check: a (usually) informal review of a project or programme looking at the way the organisation standards are being followed in a project or programme.
  • Audit: an impromptu review of a project or programme, often looking at a particular aspect of the project or programme such as risk management, planning, external contracts or stakeholder engagement.

There are significant overlaps between these forms and there are many different names for assurance activity so I am not being definitive about my my categorisation. There are two key aspects of an assurance review:

  1. It is carried out by people who are independent of the project or programme team and its immediate governance (such as a supervisory board and sponsors). No marking your own homework!
  2. The purpose of the assurance is to give confidence to the project or programme sponsors (especially those who are responsible for the investment) and the key stakeholders that the project or programme is well run to the organisation standards and (if appropriate) still worth doing.

The frequency of assurance activities is a matter of judgement for the project governance and the organisation. There should be both planned (in the project or programme plan) and unplanned (externally initiated) review activities.

Who should be involved?

There are four key groups of people who should be closely involved in the assurance activity:

  • The sponsors of the project orprogramme. These are the primary customer for the review results and may have to make some difficult decisions after the review team have reported. They need to stand behind the review team whilst ensuring the project or programme team fully understand the need for assurance and see the activity in a positive way.
  • The review team itself. They must be independent of the team being reviewed. They may be other internal PPM staff from the organisation, people from outside the organisation to bring a fresh perspective or expertise, or a combination. The team leader is a key role. The team needs to have sufficient competence and experience to give their feedback credibility.
  • Key stakeholders. These are also customers of the review who are looking for confidence that the project or programme is well run and will deliver. Their understanding of the project or programme will be an important metric.
  • The project or programme team being reviewed. This team needs to participate fully and positively in the review and take on board any recommendations from the reiview team. A positive culture of active peer review is very helpful in setting the right attitude.

What is involved?

A review should follow a standardised process typically consisting of:

  1. The review team examining the context, drivers, and objectives of the project or programme to determine the best approach, key questions, risk profile, expertise needed, and composition of the team activities.
  2. Examination of the project or programme documentation and comparison with the organisation standards.
  3. Discussion and interviews with the project team to get at the ideas behind the documentation and look at the active processes; and comparing those processes with the organisation standard.
  4. Preparation of a review report, with recomendations if appropriate.
  5. Presentation of the review report to the sponsors, followed by the reviewed team.
  6. Decisions by the sponsors and project or programme team about implementation of recomendations.
  7. Collection of lessons to be learned by the whole organisation.
  8. Review of the review process by the review team (after action review).


The result of an assurance review is typically one of four scenarios:

  • Proceed with no proposal for improvements, this would be unusual except for the simplest activities.
  • Proceed with some recommendations about improvements or changes to processes leading to higher quality execution. This would be the most common outcome.
  • Do not proceed until some significant corrective actions have been undertaken and completed to the satisfaction of the reviewers and sponsor.
  • Do not proceed. The project or programme is terminated.

A qualification for review teams.

You can see that carrying out an assurance review is a non-trivial task. It requires a method, planning, the right people, the right culture, and significant management support to be worthwhile. Just like a project really!

Key to the success of an assurance review is a trained and competent review team. That’s why we have established our assurance assessor qualifications. They enable the review staff to claim the credibility they need to back up their report and recommendations. For more information about the assurance assessor qualifications please contact us.

twitterDo you think assurance is the next big thing in PPM? If not, what is? Contact us through twitter or respond to this blog.

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