Project Office means different things to different people. To some Project Office means a person or team of people providing administrative support to a project manager (project director, programme manager, programme director) who is managing a large project.
To others Project Office means a central group often within an Information Technology department or other project-based organisation who provide administrative services to all projects, project managers and senior managers. This might include secretarial services like taking minutes and booking meeting rooms through to collecting raw project status data from projects, collating it and reporting it to senior managers.
In another definition, the Project Office has a project management centre of
competence and policing role. This is synonymous with the Project Assurance function described
Again Project Audit has many interpretations. To some Project Audit is a Finance function auditing the financial performance and financial reporting of projects. This can be a group within a very large programme or more commonly a group that sits outside projects and visits periodically to perform audits.
To others Project Audit is about auditing conformance to project management
and other rules, standards and guidelines: for example, does the project have all the applicable
Prince2 or ISO 9000 documentation in place.
Project Assurance can mean the process by which a project seeks to ensure the quality of its outputs. For example, in a software project, these assurance processes could include the inspection of design specifications and the counting and analysis of defects found at various stages of the project. We would prefer to call this Quality Assurance.
Project Assurance can refer to a central group within a project-performing organisation (such as an IT department) that seeks to ensure that all projects conform to relevant rules, standards and guidelines as in Project Audit above.
Lastly, Project Assurance can refer to a central group within a project-performing organisation that provides advice and guidance to project managers and conducts reviews of projects not so much to establish their conformance to standards, but to assess their health, the likelihood of their achieving declared commitments and to recommend remedial action where necessary.
This last incarnation of Project Assurance has the disadvantage of requiring skill,
experience and the exercise of judgement but the advantage of being useful.
Project Assurance has been in place in some commercial organisations for 30 years or more. Project Assurance in this context meaning providing project management guidance and conducting value-add independent projects reviews.
Let us summarise each service that Project Assurance might provide, then discuss who might staff a Project Assurance group and lastly its cost. A fuller exposition of Project Assurance processes and of the disciplines Project Assurance seek to inculcate within a project-based organisation is given in this Project Management Book.
Centre of Competence. The Project Assurance group provides consultancy to those involved in projects - not only project managers but anyone with a project leadership role. So if a team leader charged with constructing a project plan in Microsoft Project needs some help, they can approach Project Assurance. If a novice project manager does not know how best to manage their project risks they can ask Project Assurance for advice and guidance. If a quality analyst needs ideas on how best to track quality statistics they can ask Project Assurance. This does not, however, imply that the Project Assurance group must contain experts in everything. But the Project Assurance group must know who the experts are: so the novice seeking MSP support may be directed to a team leader in another project who can help.
Rules and Guidelines. Some organisations, rather than laying the dead hand of a standard project management methodology uniformly on all projects, develop their own project management rules and guidelines. Rules must be adhered to by all projects. Guidelines contain useful procedures, forms, checklists and so forth that can be adopted by projects if they would add value. Project Assurance write, revise and promulgate these rules and guidelines. They advise projects which of the optional procedures in the guidelines might be appropriate for them.
Start Up Reviews. Before each stage of a project begins Project Assurance review estimates, plans, risk management strategies, proposed control mechanisms, etc to help the project manager ensure the project is well founded and the controls appropriate.
Health Checks. During a project, Project Assurance review project health: are estimates proving realistic, is the work plan realistic and understood by the team, are planned quality checks being performed. The review team is obliged to reach a conclusion, not on whether the project is complying with standards, but whether in their judgement the project will meet its commitments. Health Checks can be formal, taking a few days and involving a team of reviewers, or informal for smaller, less critical projects taking one reviewer half a day to conduct. Although a Project Assurance professional may chair a formal Health Check review, they will co-opt other coal-face project managers and/or team leaders to bring real world pragmatism to the process. The full Health Check process is covered in this Project Management Book.
Technical Reviews. Rather than assessing project management health, Technical Reviews look at the technical health of projects. Best conducted at the design stage these reviews answer questions such as: can the design be built, will it work, can it be tested, will it perform adequately. Clearly, the Project Assurance professional leading this review will almost certainly need to buy in highly specialised resources to assess such matters. For these technical reviews it is worth categorising each individual finding by criticality otherwise managers with little technical knowledge have no idea whether a finding represents a major show stopper or an observation on a technical nicety.
Lessons Learned. At the end of each project stage projects should be obliged to conduct a lessons learned review, distil lessons and remedies and copy conclusions to Project Assurance. Project Assurance make these valuable learnings available to other projects: by putting individuals in touch with each other; by updating rules and guidelines; by encouraging those who have learned something of general interest to present at gatherings of people involved in running other projects; by maintaining an intranet of lessons learned and encouraging people to use it.
Who Staffs Project Assurance. Project Assurance must be staffed by people who have been there, seen it and done it: experienced project managers and project team leaders. People who have been involved in a disaster project are a good choice: they know the causes, the warning signs and the pain of not addressing the problems. They must be helpful and approachable.
Cost. Project Assurance is not expensive. It requires perhaps one full time person for every hundred people involved in project work. However, they must be empowered by senior management to exercise project assurance on their, the senior managers', behalf. They must be able to call on others to conduct, for example, project Health Checks. Given management support and an appropriate ethos, project managers and others who aren't at that time over-stretched will often volunteer to be on a Health Check team.
Project Assurance can be a major factor in ensuring that more of an organisation's projects are successful.
Project Assurance, Quality Assurance and the role of the Project Office are among the
topics covered in this free
Project Management Book.
For more on the role of the Project Office in the sense of administrative support
to the manager of a large project or programme please see
Articles on Project Management:
Risk Management in Software Development Projects
Quality Management in Software Development Projects
The Tale of Three Project Managers
Project Management in the Public Sector
Towards a Project-Centric World
Project Management Proverbs
So You Want To Be A Project Manager?
Project Management Book
Copyright M Harding Roberts
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