Learning from past mistakes: How important are project reviews and reports in determining the success of future projects?

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PRINCE2 project management has a number of Principles that are universal in their application. I view these as ‘generic critical success factors’ as if they were absent from the project, the project is likely to fail. There are seven Principles in PRINCE2 – two of which are:

1. Manage-by-Exception

2. Manage-by-Stages

The second of this is a causal effect of the first. That is, the Executive in PRINCE2 is held accountable for the project but they are likely to be very busy or Executives of more than one project. So PRINCE2 offers them ‘Management-by-Exception’ – that is they delegate the day-to-day running of the project to the Project Manager, but only within pre-defined boundaries. As part of this, the Executive needs to check continued business justification (another of the seven Principles) at key review points in the project (e.g. budget rounds, planned major expenditure) – basically anywhere where commitment of resources and authority to spend is needed. These reviews are called stage boundaries as the project is broken down into smaller ‘chunks’ (called ‘Stages’) and the Project Manager runs one stage at a time.

However, let’s suppose a stage is twelve months long. Put yourself in the position of the Executive. Would you just say to the Project Manager “see you in 12 months” and not check progress at any other time? I hope not! So, the Executive asks for Highlight Reports – periodic reviews of the project between stage boundaries. For a twelve month stage, these reviews could be, say, every 2 months.

So, how does all this relate to learning from past mistakes? Well, my experience from working with a lot of clients is that the length and frequency of stages is a key challenge to project success. As is the frequency of project reviews. It is a balance between too few long stages versus too many short stages. Ditto for project reviews. I was with one client recently who did project reviews every 14 hours! Not a lot of progress was made, from what I could gather! This scenario is often a result of lack of project management maturity or lack of willingness of the Project Executive to delegate.

Either way, if projects are to be successful in the future, organisations (and Executives) need to learn from other project experiences to ensure that the ‘scheduling’ of stages and project reviews are conducive to progress, empowerment of the project team and fostering a culture of success.

But it is not just the ‘scheduling’ of stages and reviews but also the format and the quality information presented. Stages and reviews are there to make decisions and so if the inputs are poor, the outputs (decisions as to continued viability of the project) may also be poor.

If a project is to be successful, then it needs management-by-exception to work (recall is it a PRINCE2 Principle and a critical success factor). And to ensure management-by-exception is efficacious, organisations must learn from project reviews and stages. Getting these two wrong has more implications that just not delivering the project.

Dr. Ian Clarkson is Head of Project and Programme Management Product Development a QA -leading providers of Prince2 certification and training courses. His role provides business direction and ownership of QA’s portfolio, programme, project and risk management curriculum. Ian is an experienced lecturer, author, speaker and consultant, having delivered programmes and projects in all industry sectors.