One approach to Agile adopted by previously waterfall-heavy organisations is to retain the previous stage-based approach to delivery but to use Agile to deliver each stage. It’s a bad idea, but as it is by no means extinct yet, I thought I’d resurrect some thoughts about how stage boundaries should work.
Stages are a basic concept in project management, and whole methodologies such as Prince2 and practically every other delivery method, from waterfalls to DSDM assume the same stage-based structure. But although all such methods conclude each stage with a stage boundary review, I have found little coherent thought on this topic. So here is my tuppence-worth.
This rather unhelpful diagram (click to expand it) shows the basic position reviewers finds themselves in: the orange oblong is the project, with the vertical lines marking the stages. The current review is right there in the middle – some way through, but still a way off the project’s end.
So how can you tell how well you are doing? There are basically four questions about the project itself you want answers to:
- Did the last stage go as planned?
- Is your project making satisfactory progress as a whole?
- Will your project deliver as expected?
- Based on the above, what exactly do you need to do about the next stage?
So that is exactly which the next four diagrams explain. Firstly, looking back on the most recent stage, how did it go?
For example, was product quality as required, specified and planned? Were milestones and deliverables as expected? Was the stakeholders’ involvement as agreed, and even if it was, was it enough? When coming up with a stage boundary review checklist, you could do a lot worse than start from these basics.
Next, looking back right to the project start, how has it gone so far?
In particular, what have the trends been? How has the project’s profile evolved over time – stage by stage, how have its basic features such as scope, delivery, cost, quality and risk unfolded? Are there recognisable trends? If so, what were they, what do they mean and what do you plan doing about them?
The next question involves a complete about-face, and requires you to stop looking back and start looking forward. And the basic question is now, What are your project’s prospects? Looking to the end of the project, are there any unexpected obstacles? Risks? Threats? Opportunities? If there are, again, what do you plan to do about them?
Finally – at least as far as the project itself is concerned – now that you know how you are doing and what the longer-term picture looks like, are you ready to start the next stage? For example, are the following all well defined and has provision been made for the all to be managed? Your plans and estimates? All outstanding issues and risks? Your project’s dependencies? The right team + resources? The right technology, facilities and environments? The right stakeholder awareness, commitment and involvement? If not, now is the time to do something about it.
But of course, projects do not exist in isolation. Unless you are operating in your own private universe, the project must also be evaluated from the point of view of the organisation on whose behalf it is being run. So there are four more questions that need to be answered before you can call your stage boundary review complete:
- Does the project still fit the portfolio?
- Is the project’s business performance acceptable?
- Does the project comply with all relevant policies and standards?
- Is all project information and decisions under formal control?
Hence the next four pictures, of which the first illustrates the first question.
The fact is, it is perfectly possible for a project to be a roaring success and yet still be canned, for the simple reason that it no longer serves the organisation’s wider purposes. Conversely, a limping project may be kept alive because, however badly it is performing in its own right, it is indispensable to some larger programme or strategy. So it is crucial for your review to ask whether this project still makes sense, and if not, what must be done (including killing it) to make it fit the bigger picture?
Conversely, exactly how well is the project doing from the organisation’s point of view? Hence the next question, which is to evaluate the project against its business case. Costs? Benefits? Risks? Without answers to questions like these, it is hard to see how the project continues to be justified.
There is also a more practical side to a project’s ‘fit’, which is illustrated in the final two pictures. The essential question posed by the following diagram is this: Does the project comply with all relevant policies and standards? These might take many forms – regulatory requirements, quality standards, corporate policies, business roadmaps – anything that defines the broader shape into which the project must fit to be considered a success.
Finally, the project is part of the wider organisation from an operational point of view too. It needs to fit in in the sense that it is being tracked and recorded and measured and analysed and all those other things middle management do. This naturally raises a range of essentially administrative questions about whether the project is up-to-date regarding things like records, reports, escalations, change control, lessons learned, and so on. If not, perhaps now is the moment to do something about it.
Once you have this basic logic, the next issue is to identify specific questions (and perhaps measures) you would use to work out the answer. You will probably end up with a hundred or so. Usually people react to this number with horror – surely it will take days to review a project against more than 100 criteria? But in practice this is not a problem. After all, the stage is presumably only ending because the project manager believes that the project has met all that stage’s requirements (or if not, has obtained the necessary exemptions and waivers and re-baselined the project accordingly). That means that deliveries are complete, records and reports up to date, change requests all dealt with, all residual issues and risks under control, and so on. If that is the case – which is a logical entry condition for a stage boundary review – then the answer to every single one of your hundred questions is going to be simple and straightforward. The entire review should take literally seconds per question, and minutes for the review as a whole. Well, that may be a little optimistic, but if the review does take a lot longer than that, it should not be because there were so many questions to answer.
It is quite simple in concept. However, there are also certain things you do not want your boundary reviews to deal with. Unfortunately quite a few review systems I have worked with fell into these mistakes. Perhaps the most common is repeating tasks that should already have been put to bed – checking that the right people signed of the last stage’s deliverables, even reviewing them again, and so on. This mistake is usually indicated by the kinds of question the review checklist contains – about the content of documents, not the state of the project.
That in turn brings up a further important point: that the purpose of the review is to check the viability of the project as a whole. It is crucial that the review process is designed to perform this task and this task only. Everything else should have been completed as an entry condition for the review itself. If it isn’t already done, most people won’t be interested or qualified to participate. After all, stage boundary reviews are governance events, and the way they work – and do not work – should reflect this fact.
Another typical error is to attempt to score the results. Although not a mistake in principle, it usually doesn’t work. Recently I worked with a client whose reviews include scoring each item, and the review has to reach a pre-defined target if it is to pass. I don’t really understand this.
Firstly, it is the Project Board’s job to make that call – not some artificial calculation. Secondly, most such systems are not in fact measuring anything. In some cases, the scores are completely subjective. That is, reviews are asked to give the item a score. But by and large they do this without any objective guidelines as to how to score and in full knowledge what the ‘pass’ score is! So if they want the review to pass and they know that the pass score is, say, 3 out of 5, they give the item – at least 3! Not only are scores of this kind quite meaningless but by using numbers an illusion of objectivity is created.
In other cases, the scores stand in no real relationship to any quantified metric of success or failure. So even if you really can tell that this item is worth only 3 out of 5, there is little or no link between the criteria and the overall success of the project. So the number, interesting though it may be, is completely unconnected with the purpose of the review!
Finally, problems that arise during a stage boundary review should not usually derail or even delay the project. Again many companies take the view that ‘failing’ a review should stop the project until everything is fixed. In the first company I ever worked in that used SBRs, the whole of the previous stage had to be repeated! This is bonkers, of course.
The right approach, I think, is to treat the review as a whole as an key moment of consolidation for the project as a whole, but to treat the problems it raises as individual risks. It is possible that the outcome of the review will be the project’s cancellation or a fundamental re-structuring, but this should be rare. More usually, most work should continue as planned while the review is taking place, and only things connected with the specific issues raised by the review should be delayed as a result of the review. If there is something so fundamentally wrong with the project that it should simply cease, it should not take a stage boundary review to work this out!