The great and oft-quoted philosopher Socrates once said, "The unexamined life is not worth living." A great project manager may tell you, "The unexamined project is not worth doing." In order for a project team to assess, refine and improve its process, that process must be comprehensively and critically evaluated. Toward that end, the project audit is an invaluable tool.
Project audits are conducted to discover and then examine any issues or challenges that arise as a team works to complete its assigned task. The practical application of this fact-finding is of course to learn from experience with the goal of improving future projects. But it isn't always about finding out what went wrong. Audits can also identify and celebrate innovations and process successes, ensuring that what went right is fleshed out and built upon so that it can go even more right the next time around.
When to conduct an audit: Project audits may be done during a project or at its completion. When conducted while a project is still in progress, an audit provides on-the-ground assessment that informs the project sponsor, project manager and team of what is going well and what needs to be changed in order for the project to be completed successfully, on-time and within budget. If an audit is undertaken at the completion of the project, it becomes more of a post-mortem examination performed to define success for upcoming projects and ensure it is achieved. Regardless of an audit's timing, the process is basically the same.
Who should conduct the audit: Ideally, project audits should be conducted by an outside party bringing impartiality and a fresh perspective, but whether you choose to outsource the audit or not, confidentiality is essential for data gathering. When project team members and other stakeholders are interviewed about their experiences, they should feel comfortable speaking frankly and not fear retribution for voicing any frustrations with the process. An audit is only as comprehensive as the information on which it is based.
A project audit is comprised of three phases:
- Research Preparation (includes defining success and developing questionnaire)
- Deep-Dive Research
- Reporting Findings
Research Preparation, the first phase, actually consists of about three major tasks. First, the auditor must speak with both the project sponsor and the project manager individually to determine each person's success criteria. What do they think the successfully completed project will look like? And what should the successful audit accomplish and uncover? Being clear about client expectations is of utmost importance.
After these high-level interviews, two questionnaires must be developed. The first will be distributed to each person on the project team and any key stakeholders in advance of one-on-one interviews. Ideally, this questionnaire will get the audit's interview subjects thinking (and organizing their thoughts) about the project's successes, weaknesses, challenges and opportunities.
The second questionnaire is for use during the project team interviews and should consist of open-ended questions that work to flesh out the issues the first questionnaire brought to light. Good interviews aren't just SWOT analyses; they focus on process: How did the team work together? Were meetings run efficiently? How were risks mitigated? Did information flow effectively?
Deep-Dive Research: Now that you have developed your tools, it's time to put them to use collecting data. Project auditors will need to conduct individual interviews with the project sponsor, project manager, project team members and key stakeholders, which may include vendors, suppliers, contractors and even customer representation.
In addition to your interviews, an exhaustive review of all documentation pertaining to the project is the audit's other major source of data. This document review should include basic policy items like team structure, project scope and plan, and business requirements. But it will also require delving into daily, ongoing project documentation like meeting minutes, spreadsheets, milestone reports, action items and change logs.
Be sure to speak with both internal and external stakeholders to determine what their expectations were and whether they have been met. Were the Project Quality Management and Product Quality Management plans followed and achieved? Each person you interview and document you study provides an important piece of the overall puzzle.
Reporting Your Findings is the final phase of the audit. Compile all data collected from questionnaires, interviews and project documentation. Identify and explicate the project's successes, failures, concerns and challenges. The crucial conclusion of this in-depth report should be a list of lessons learned and how to implement them going forward.
The comprehensive report should of course be delivered with a companion presentation that highlights key findings in an easily-digestible, attention-grabbing format that energizes the entire project team for the work that lies ahead – a more cohesive effort that results in greater success on future projects.
Conclusion: The project audit is certainly a beneficial, and even cathartic, exercise for all project team members. It provides a mountain of data and insight into an organization's processes and politics. However, every phase of the audit must be focused on, and work in service to, improving the next project. The project audit is a very forward-facing tool. It is only worth the resources expended when the lessons it uncovers are applied to future projects. Only then can your project audit truly be considered a success.
This article was provided by Joe Schembri with Villanova University's project management courses. Professionals interested in earning their PMP certification can take courses to prepare themselves 100% online.