Assurance as a critical friend – “I’m the hand, not the head”
A critical friend is typically someone who tells it how it is and judges the merits and faults of something. While friends, on the other hand, often bring a high degree of unconditional positive regard with a tendency to see things in a positive light. Despite this, a critical friend is probably the closest to what might be regarded as true friendship; a successful merger of unconditional support and unconditional critique. In a portfolio, programme or project environment, the Gate Review Process is the embodiment of a critical friend. When assurance is undertaken, prior to a key decision point, it supports the programme or project owner (or whatever term is used for the single point of accountability) to decide whether to continue, discontinue or vary the scope for implementing the benefits-led investment. It should be noted that the benefits are the rationale and driver for any investment while costs are the constraint. What assurance does is highlight any hurdles that may lie ahead and not what has happened in the past as gate reviews are not an audit activity.
Avoiding the Minefield
As a critical friend, an independent review team (consisting of experienced and credentialed project portfolio professionals) exists to objectively identify potential risk threats or opportunities that are often beyond the visibility of the programme or project owner or team that may threaten successful delivery of the forecast benefits and value to customers. Like Nobel Prize-winner Dr. Daniel Kahneman states in his Thinking, Fast and Slow Book, “It is much easier to identify a minefield when you observe others wandering into it than when you are about to do so” yourself.
As such, the Gate Review Process by the Infrastructure and Projects Authority tells it how it is by making transparent any newsworthy programme or project management practices, both positive and negative that the programme or project owner should be aware of to inform ongoing decision making. While interviews are entirely anonymous; any findings or recommendations should not viewed as allocating blame. This serves no purpose as time wasted disputing programme or project information could be better spent redressing any report recommendations, particularly prior to progressing to the next phase or stage. By actioning report recommendations, the programme or project minimises any costly rework and actively learns from its lessons by applying knowledge and bridging the knowing-doing gap.
To reiterate, the independent gate review team exists only to highlight potential risk threats or opportunities based on the available information and evidence collected during the interview process whilst the programme or project continues with planning and delivery of the next phase or stage. The programme or project owner can choose to either accept the findings and recommendations, or part thereof, or ignore them at their peril. However the benefit to the programme or project does not come from doing the review but through the timely resolution of any report recommendations. Similar to the advice imparted by Tyrian Lannister from Game of Thrones, “I’m the hand, not the head!” It’s sometimes easy to believe that the initiative will prevail as planned despite knowing that it may be delivered late, cost more than planned or worse fails to realise any of the forecast benefits used to justify the investment.
A gate review team as a critical friend and trusted insider provides a safe environment to assess the probability of programme or project success prior to transitioning into the next phase or stage - by building trust with the programme or project owner. It enables constructive challenge, targeted questions as well as highlight potential business, service and environmental risks to be redressed. So when undertaken at the beginning and throughout the programme or project lifecycle, the gate Review Process works simultaneously to support the initiative achieve its agreed strategic objectives. In doing so, it ensures a robust foundation is in place to effectively support the delivery arrangements into operations.
In summary, an important attribute of any programme or project owner role, ultimately accountable for the success or failure of a programme or project, is their ability to make an informed decision. A gate review team, therefore, exists to support the programme or project owner make an informed decision on how to proceed next. They do not exist to hinder or stop any programme or project from progressing but are there to provide both unconditional support and critique as a true critical friend. What a gate review team provides is a valuable and alternative perspective on the risks and issues confronting the programme or project while challenging the robustness of existing plans and processes. Rather than presume that the road ahead is clear, it’s better to be warned of any potential minefields that may lie underneath by a critical friend who has the programme or project interests at heart.
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OGC Gateway Assurance Expert | Author | Agile, Project, Programme & Portfolio Management and Better Business Cases Specialist