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Managing a Real Review Process
By Carl M. Manello

“Unless a reviewer has the courage to give you unqualified praise, I say ignore the bastard.” –John Steinbeck

I have seen the program review process in many companies reduced to no more than a “dog and pony show.” These so-called Gate Reviews are nothing more than the equivalent of Mr. Steinbeck’s unqualified praise. With little substance offered–such as true metrics that help to predict delivery–the reviews are reduced to nothing more than a chance for management to attend another meeting.

The intent of a program process life cycle is to ensure quality and cost effective delivery by flexibly applying a rigorous process for major business initiatives. The process consists of sequential milestone gates configured around standard program life cycle phases. Reviews should be used at each quality gate to gauge the progress and direction of the initiative (not just to supply unqualified praise!). In addition, the gates may be tightly coupled to a financial approval or appropriation process. Additional interim quality gates may also be added within a phase to enhance program success and minimize risk, but the key gates can be viewed as a minimum set for effective governance.

A program process life cycle is meant to be a generic framework. It is designed to be independent of a product development or a system development life cycle methodology (SDLC). In other words, each initiative has the flexibility to apply a product development cycle or SDLC (e.g., waterfall or Agile) that best fits the specific initiative’s ability to meet the business needs. The only stipulation is that the principles of the program life cycle are followed.

Therefore, any implementation based framework can work with the program process life cycle. The two should fit together to complement and drive success.

Adhering to these basic tenants, a very complex project can be broken down into manageable components, can be assessed in a standardized, repeatable fashion and can have its progress towards the end more easily understood.

The tenants are:

  • Any given initiative should consist of at least 5 generic phases. Each project includes initiation and ongoing operation phases at the start and end, respectively. The nature of the other three phases is variable based upon the initiative, but generally fall along the lines of Analysis and Design, Development, and Deployment. (For example, Product Development includes market research–analysis and design, Development–product testing, and Deployment–release of the product to the market.)
  • Between each phase there should be a gated review process. These review gates acts as quality assurance check points throughout the life cycle of the initiative and provide repeated opportunities for management to validate direction and course. The formality and rigor with which the gate reviews are conducted should be directly related to the importance, complexity or size of the initiative. Therefore, a relatively small project may require incidental reviews (e.g., quality checks of required documentation) while a large organizational effort may require formalized gate reviews.

  • Within each phase of the cycle, depending on complexity and/or duration, the initiative should schedule internal reviews. These internal reviews are not necessarily for senior management, tied to funding, nor regulated (e.g., by a compliance group). However, they should include relevant experts from outside the initiative’s managing team. These may take the form of Peer Reviews (for example conducted by marketing managers not associated with the product development–therefore “peers”), architectural reviews (that assess the software or hardware platform being developed for an IT project), financial reviews, quality assurance or any number of stakeholder group-led reviews.

The reviews may prescribe focused actions that need to be addressed, specific to the needs of the reviewers (e.g., standard reporting on financial metrics), which would otherwise not be addressed in the larger Phase Gate reviews. Thus, the review process provides information (status, metrics, estimates) that may provide good news or bad. Therefore, unlike Steinbeck’s reviewers, those who review initiatives as part of a program process will be able to give honest, quantified and informed go/no-go feedback.

Carl Manello is a Solution Lead for Slalom‘s Program & Project Management practice based in Chicago who enjoys exploring how to tightly couple the art and science of project delivery with business operations. You can read from Carl on his blog.

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