Project management audits are rarely welcome and often contentious, but when done correctly, they offer unparalleled opportunity to learn from mistakes and rescue troubled projects. Like every other sensitive management process, success depends on planning, execution and communication. Read on to learn more about it.
What is project auditing? Project auditing is a formal type of "project review", most often designed to evaluate the extent to which project management standards are being followed. Audits are typically performed by a designated audit department, the "Project Management Office", an empowered Steering Committee or an external auditor. The audit "entity" must have the designated authority to conduct the audit and make related recommendations.
Going beyond practice verification, project audits are also performed as a "check and balance" to evaluate project quality, necessity, value, and to examine the root cause of known project problems and reported failures. In order to meet these varied uses, audit scope may vary based on type, purpose and timing. Verification audits are pre-planned, with the "subject project" selected according to established criteria. On the other hand, quality assurance and problem response audits are initiated in response to the pressing needs of a troubled project, and in that sense, the project "selects itself".
Whatever the driving force may be, project audits should follow standardized guidelines, to ensure that they are properly planned, executed fairly, and that all announced results and recommendations are given appropriate weight and deserved credibility. The audit is a tool, and like any other tool, proper usage is the key to effective results.
Every effective audit operation will be defined by four (4) key characteristics - alignment, independence, transparency and institutional support. Reality dictates that audits will never be welcome, and audit staff will always be looked upon with skepticism. Can they be truly independent? Why are they always picking on me? How can I get this project done with all these interruptions? These are the natural thoughts that come with external scrutiny and it's quite understandable. Negative audit results, particularly as part of a pattern, can damage one's career, or even bring about dismissal in more extreme cases.
On balance, audits are essential, and legally imperative. But just having audit capability is not enough. Audit staff must be able to cut through the fear, negativity and skepticism to bring about positive results. The only way to achieve this is to empower auditors to do their job, and allow project managers to share in the audit process through training, communication and feedback.
Get an illustrated view of the project review and lessons learned process in our informative infographic: The Road to Continuous Improvement.
What will it take to make project auditing a standard part of your approach to managing successful projects? To realize expected benefits, every step, element and deliverable of the audit process must be clearly defined and openly communicated, including:
The goal of the standardized audit process is to provide pre-defined practices to be adapted and applied as needed to multiple "audit situations" (projects). To realize all of the intended benefits, related practices must incorporate the elements listed above, organized into executable steps and structured into a defined timeline. To succeed, you must have access to sufficient resources, have sufficient time to plan and act, have sufficient management support, and sufficient cooperation from all stakeholders involved.
Above all, effective auditing practices depend upon open and honest communication - to provide the "informational" basis for the audit and to set expectations for what will happen, when and how. When the stage is set is correctly, audits bring clarity and structure to the “project management process”, which in the end, can only help the overworked project manager. The goal of the auditor and the project manager should be one and the same - to continuously improve project results and performance. Further, it is important to "keep an open mind".
When one or more projects "fail" to pass an audit, that is not necessarily the fault of the project manager or the team. Perhaps project management standards are not suitably sized and scaled to project or organizational needs? Perhaps insufficient training or lack of communication of standards is a root cause? Above all, auditing needs to take a global perspective and examine all variables to make the most effective judgements and recommendations.
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And it's a skill that will come in handy whenever you need a sure fire way to keep "project problems" from becoming "project disasters". Learn more in our multi-part article series: