Programme assurance, always keep it front of mind

By the time you are worried about programme delivery assurance, it is probably too late. Pre-planning is the key to managing risk, proactively and effectively. 


Working with a customer who was worried about their delivery, it was surprising when they considered whether it was time for delivery assurance – as if it was a technique to be used as a last resort, when all other avenues had failed. Programme assurance is a key tool for managing delivery risk, or perhaps for correcting the course; it is not a rescue tool. One of the first things to ask, as a programme is mobilised, is whether there is merit in programme assurance, and how and when that programme assurance should occur. Arguably, the question ought not to be, ‘do we need it?’, but rather ‘why wouldn’t we have it?’ 



Programme assurance helps you deliver more successfully, at a lower cost.  


We often hear that “most change and transformation programmes fail to deliver on their ambition”. Programme assurance is increasingly used as a tool to help manage that failure risk, by taking a proactive view of areas of potential concern and risk, thereby helping business leaders steer the programme and support decision making, pre-empting potential failure. The decision to include delivery assurance for a programme is usually driven by three concerns: 


  1. The change is something that is generically high risk, or that the organisation has struggled with before – this concern usually occurs in advance, during the mobilisation of a high-risk programme, and is often prompted by prior awareness, experience, insight or advice. 
  2. Delivery kpi’s are drifting out of tolerance – programme assurance can provide insight into the things that need to be done to ‘course-correct’; 
  3. A double-check is required – experienced leaders may feel things are ‘not quite right’, and want another opinion, perhaps on a specific area of focus before things go drastically off track. 



Programme assurance should be structured and rigorous, but not onerous 


Depending on the nature of your portfolio and the level of risk within it, programme assurance might comprise: 


  • A standing service, to manage many high-risk activities 
  • A programme of regular health-checks, calling in expertise from elsewhere in the organisation, and/or independent outsiders when needed 
  • Interventional assurance only – when lower risk delivery activities start to present a higher risk than expected. 


The choice of programme assurance approach should ideally be a strategic risk-based decision, rather than at the whim of individual sponsors or delivery teams. Assuring against failure where the cost of such failure is low is perhaps not as good an investment as assuring a project where the consequences would be more damaging. 


What we expect to see for any assurance activity is that: 


  • There is clarity on why the programme assurance is being conducted and what is to be assured 
  • Costs are pre-estimated and built in (except of course for unexpected interventions – although they may be part of a wider risk mitigation budget) 
  • There is clarity on the skill and experience required for the review – and whether it can be found internally or externally. Often, the best solution will be a composite. 


In conducting any individual review, we expect to see: 


  • Clarity on who the review is for 
  • Correct timing of the review, so that action can be taken to mitigate risks before they arise 
  • Diligent review and evidence, leading to a principle of moving to action fast 
  • An assumption that follow-up deep dives may be needed, following shorter reviews or health-checks. 



Investing in programme assurance should be seen in a positive light 


Assurance can sometimes be thought of as a negative activity, with outsiders snooping around a team that is too busy to waste time explaining everything from scratch. At Project One, we encourage organisations to approach programme assurance with the philosophy that the review activity should be: 


  • Non-prescriptive, focusing on what matters most each time – not box-ticking 
  • Conducted at the right level – deep enough to be evidence-based, but not turning over every stone unnecessarily 
  • As short as possible, by focussing on what matters most and using effective, experienced reviewers 
  • Most of all, collaborative – the value must come from the teams/organisation agreeing to take necessary additional actions. Ideally, insight should be shared during the review activity, not just presented as a ‘dumped’ final report. 



Programme assurance should be seen as helping delivery, not as a threat to the individuals leading and engaged in that delivery. 


Whilst every organisation’s portfolio will be different, the thought process for identifying what might need assurance, deciding on how to structure that assurance, and the approach to assurance, should be similar. All structured and presented in a way that makes it clear that project delivery assurance is a tool to make success more likely. 


At Project One, we often get called in to customers to fix failure, just past the point at which assurance might have delivered cheaper, more effective interventions, and avoided more damaging consequences. It is usually easier, and far less expensive, to prevent a fire than it is to put it out! 


Are fire alarms are going off? Is the Leadership Team starting to have significant worries? Are you concerned about delivery, but hoping that issues will just resolve themselves? Or are you embarking on a high-risk transformation, with no overt assurance strategy?  Talk to us first. 

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