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Bring Purpose and Value Back to Project Reviews

In the past 30 years I’ve attended hundreds upon hundreds of project status reviews in various capacities - sometimes as the project manager (‘victim’), more often as a general stakeholder (‘muzzled bystander’) and on a few occasions as a review lead (‘master inquisitor’). I can’t honestly remember a single instance where the review has actually proved directly useful to anyone involved. I’d go as far as to suggest that the best project status reviews were the ones that got cancelled, thereby freeing up time to do something useful instead.


But, before going any further, let’s just clarify what I mean by a project status review. I’m talking about the regular management reviews which usually take place at the month end, after the (usually equally useless) project status report has been sent out. These reviews, scheduled months in advance, generally consist of a bunch of managers and stakeholders who ask lightweight questions about the project status. Often these are the same issues that have been addressed in the project status report but which they haven’t got around to reading yet, and usually they are the same questions they asked the previous month. In the worst scenarios, the project manager must endure a series of review boards in which increasingly senior managers ask the same questions expecting some miraculous transformation of project status during the course of the review period. Some hope!

Project managers adopt different strategies to deal with the project status review. Some come armed with spreadsheets and projections and try and bluff their way through with numbers. Others overwhelm the audience by pointing fingers and blaming the suppliers, the customer, the government and anyone else in the hope of shifting attention away from themselves. Yet others simply talk, and talk, and talk in a brazen attempt to use up the allocated review time without actually revealing anything at all.

And generally the members of the review board nod and mutter and occasionally proffer words of encouragement or caution or huff and puff about the situation, but rarely take any action. It’s all part of the game. And it’s all a waste of time and energy.

Don’t think that I’m advocating that all reviews are a waste of time - only the ones that take place because “that’s what managers do”, “that’s what the process dictates”, or for whatever other forgotten or misunderstood reason. If scheduled reviews are the established norm then review leaders and participants should at least be encouraged to ask useful and more demanding questions.

This is especially true with improvement or change programmes where project costs and schedules may appear to be on-target in terms of creating deliverables, but the real hard work - actually embedding the change and winning over hearts and minds may be a million miles off the mark. For these types of projects the review leader should consider not only including the improvement programme manager but also representatives from the target organisation who are most affected by the change. Questions and discussions should be formulated around the human impacts of the change, not purely the technical and physical aspects of the project.

I’ve worked with several organisations where the focus of reviews was always on the tangible aspects of the project - the process descriptions and other work products. Projects that appeared healthy were in fact at risk because elements like the readiness of the organisation to embrace the change, how communications were being received, and expected levels of resistance to change were never being probed.

Here are a few of the more challenging questions that a review leader could be asking of their project managers to get a better steer on the reality of a project status rather than relying on a verbal rehash of the status report.
  • What has become clear since last we met? And less obvious?
  • What is the area that, if you made an improvement, would give you and others the greatest return on time, effort, and dollars invested? 
  • What is currently impossible to do that, if it were possible, would change everything? 
  • What are you trying to make happen in the next month, two months and three months? 
  • What's the most important decision you're facing? What's keeping you from making it? How can I help?
  • What topic are you hoping I won't bring up? 
  • What area under your responsibility are you most satisfied with? Least satisfied with? 
  • What part of your responsibilities are you avoiding right now? 
  • What one thing that I can do as your manager would most help this project?
Think about you the last review you participated in, and ask yourself how useful it was, how much value it added, and how you could improve the experience and outcomes for yourself, the project under review and the other participants. And then do it!


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