Conducting a Project Healthcheck
Finding Out How a Project Is Progressing
Projects don't always go as planned.
Perhaps one is struggling to deliver the benefits specified, or a deadline has been missed for a key project phase, or costs are escalating and threatening the project's business case.
Sometimes you can address these challenges as part of everyday activity within the project – but sometimes you can't.
For example, imagine that you're managing a project to introduce a new IT system. You've completed the design phase, and had your design approved. However, during the development and testing phase, you realize that key people think you're supposed to be doing something different. You've discussed this with some important business stakeholders, and the situation is complicated. How do you resolve it?
Conducting a project healthcheck gives you a complete picture of the project's progress, and helps you confirm how different stakeholders view its success. You can then agree how to proceed.
When You Need a Project Healthcheck
Healthchecks take time and cost money, so be sure they're needed. In general, they're worth running when you want to do the following:
- Develop action plans to resolve significant and complex concerns that can't be managed as part of the everyday project activity.
- Renew the organization's enthusiasm and commitment to a high-profile project.
- Get stakeholders to recommit to their obligations and responsibilities, and re-energize the team.
- Educate a new project manager, and identify any changes that the project manager must make. (This is particularly helpful in a medium- or large-scale project.)
- Get a project back under control.
- Make sure that the team is using the appropriate project management processes and systems.
How to Conduct a Project Healthcheck
In the steps below, we look at how you can scope, plan, and conduct a project healthcheck.
Step 1: Determine the Healthcheck's Objectives
The reason for conducting your healthcheck gives you the starting point for thinking about objectives. You can then refine this by asking further questions:
- What project phases and processes must be covered?
- Should the governance process be included in the scope?
- Do your stakeholders need to be involved? If yes, which ones?
- Do you simply want to assess project status, or do you also want to include recommendations for improvement?
- How will you deliver your healthcheck? As a report? As a presentation to the steering group? Or in some other way?
- Who will make decisions on your recommendations? And what is the deadline for presenting them?
You may be able to write your objectives by yourself, or you may need to have discussions with stakeholders and team members. It's important to get this right, as your objectives affect the way in which you'll conduct the rest of the healthcheck process.
As well as getting agreement from the project sponsor on the healthcheck objectives and output, you may also need to agree a budget for using internal team members' time, or for appointing an external group to conduct the healthcheck.
Step 2: Decide Who Will Do the Healthcheck
Healthchecks can be led by the project manager, by another project manager within the organization, by an external or internal consultant, or by an internal auditor. Choosing the right person depends on two things:
- Why is the healthcheck needed?
- What is the healthcheck's focus?
You must determine who has the appropriate understanding of the project, authority, experience, and mindset to conduct the review properly.
Let's look at each of these individually:
- Authority – An internal auditor is often selected when the healthcheck is part of a routine project audit. This person checks that all of the correct processes and procedures are being followed.
- Experience – If there are concerns about the expertise of the project manager, then the project manager shouldn't conduct the review. Using someone else with more project management expertise might lead to greater insight into how the project could be improved. An external consultant is sometimes used under these circumstances.
- Project understanding – If the healthcheck is needed to resolve complex project issues, but the project manager's capability is not being questioned, then it's often best to have the project manager conduct the review.
- Mindset – The healthcheck usually results in changes to the way the project is being delivered. The person conducting the review must, therefore, have an open mind, and be able to make recommendations without being locked into the way that the project has run to date.
Whether the healthcheck is conducted by an individual or by a team depends on what needs to done, and on the time frame. However, remember that within a team, people can offer one another ideas, and use a greater range of skills than a single individual. This is particularly helpful when issues are complex.
Step 3: Identify How You Will Proceed
Once you've decided who will complete the healthcheck, the next stage is to think about how you'll get the information you need. The following approaches may be useful:
- Project deliverable reviews – By reviewing the project's deliverables to date, you'll pick up crucial background information that will help you understand the context of the project. Healthchecks may review, for example, strategy documents, business requirements documents, the project team charter, business case documents and project control documents. And, by studying the project end-products completed so far, you'll be able to assess the quality of work being done by the project team.
- Interviews – Team member and stakeholder interviews are very common within project healthchecks. The challenge is to decide whom to include in (and exclude from) your interview list. Interviews are particularly helpful for gaining further insight into project deliverables. For example, a project plan can be complex, so having someone explain its elements may help you find omissions or issues. Interviews are also useful if you want further information on things for which certain individuals are responsible, or if you want specific individuals' perspectives on the project.
- Questionnaires – In a medium-sized or large project, you may want project team members and stakeholders to fill in a questionnaire. This is usually considered only when you want information from a large number of people. If using a questionnaire, you may want to follow it up with interviews with a sample of the respondents to gain further qualitative information, and to discuss any ideas that you've developed.
- Workshops – Workshops are useful when you want a general overview of a situation. Participants have the opportunity to give each other ideas, and find solutions together.
Step 4: Form Your Plan
Once you've thought about how you'll go ahead, you can create your schedule of activities. This should be relatively simple once you've determined what you need to accomplish.
Healthchecks are best done quickly, lasting from a few days up to a couple of weeks (for larger projects). By keeping them short, you minimize the disruption for the project team and ensure that any recommendations are implemented quickly.
Step 5: Conduct Your Healthcheck
During the healthcheck, your objectives and plan will drive your activity.
Step 6: Present Your Findings and Agree on Next Steps
Once you've conducted your healthcheck, put your views and recommendations into the format that you've agreed on with your project sponsor. This might be a written report or a presentation. Even if you've agreed to a simple discussion rather than a formal presentation, make sure you write down all of the key points.
As you prepare your findings, you may find it helpful to look at the Healthcheck Deliverable Checklist to make sure you've covered everything.
You'll probably then need to discuss your findings and recommendations with your project sponsor (and any other governance groups) before those recommendations can be approved and implemented.
Project healthchecks give you a summarized overview of a project and its progress to date, and help you make recommendations on how to take it forward. This can give fresh life to a stalling project, renew the enthusiasm of stakeholders, increase confidence that the project will succeed, and, perhaps, help negotiate a more realistic delivery date or budget.
However, doing a healthcheck takes time and money, and it can distract the project team from delivering the day-to-day activities. That's why it's important to ensure that the potential benefits outweigh the costs.