You need to ensure your project health check actually diagnoses your project's health. Most don't, they only conduct a superficial 'check-up'

“Diseased Health Checks?”

Image if you went for a ‘medical’, a health check, and the doctor took your blood pressure, took your temperature, tapped your knees and asked you a few questions and pronounced you fit and healthy.

Would you feel they had done a thorough job? Would you feel they would have picked up any underlying problems that might exist? Would you feel 100% assured as to your health? The answer to all of these questions is probably, “No.”

A half-baked health check is worse than none at all. A half-baked health check gives the impression of delivering a result but has not done the work to identify or eliminate any underlying problems.

If you are looking for a health check that you can tick as completed — a superficial approach may be adequate for you. If you are looking for a health check that actually validates the true health of your project then a superficial health check can be worse than the disease.

If you are going to do a health check – do a thorough health diagnostic.

There are four levels of health check.

Many ‘health checks’ are compliance checks. They assess, "Have you generated and maintained the necessary documentation to the set standards?" These compliance checks basically only ask the question, “Does the necessary document exist?” This type of check is virtually useless by itself.

The next level of ‘health check’ adds a second question, “Is the document appropriate?” Not only, “Do you have a change plan?” but also “Is it an appropriate change plan?” Now the reviewer can give their views on your document. This may be interesting but is it useful? No. Many reviews assessing if a project is ‘Set up for success?’ stop at this level of questioning.

The next level of ‘health check’ adds a third question, “Is the document being used?” Many a risk register or project plan exists, is appropriate and is ignored. One excellent change strategy plan failed this test – well thought through, well planned but ignored by the new person who had taken over the change manager role. No document has any value if it is not being used. And its existence is no indication that it is being used. At this third level you are at least assessing the potential value of the project documentation.

The next level of ‘health check’ adds the final question, “Is it being effective?” Are the risk register and risk management processes actually reducing the level of risk on the project? Is the project plan actually streamlining the work, enabling productivity and avoiding lost time on the project? Is all of this documentation generated as part of the project delivery process actually helping its delivery or hindering it?

Some project professionals may be going apoplectic at the indication that project documentation is not helping deliver the project. But too often the documentation is done because it is said to be needed, not because the project team sees it as the means to achieving the project's ends.

Unless all four questions are being asked, then the health check is not checking anything useful.

But health checks are not about documentation compliance – that would be a ‘controls check’. A ‘health check’ also needs to raise its perspective from the documentation to the purpose of the project and whether or not the project is set up, planned and operating to deliver the agreed desired business outcomes, benefits and value.

Therefore the key questions include:

  1. Are the desired business outcomes/business end states known? (Usually the answer is ‘No’ at this the first question.)
  2. Is the project totally aligned to delivering these business outcomes and their benefits?
  3. Are there any aspects of the project that could cause any of these business outcomes to be missed, lost or destroyed?
  4. From where the project (and the business) is today, what can stop this project/program being successful? What risks or critical success factors exist that can bring the project down?

When you start analysing projects vis-à-vis these four questions you are conducing a true ‘health diagnostic’.

Notice that these questions are focused on the “business outcomes,” not the project outcomes. Projects exist to deliver, enable and support new business-as-usual end states, the new business outcomes.

Your diagnostic must delve deep into the project, the governance team and the business to ensure that the project is set up, supported and operating to realize these outcomes in full. It must identify any underlying ‘diseases’ that could cause failure or compromise on any dimension.

With any ‘health check’ you want a thorough medical, not a ‘check-up’ — but you must be willing to pay for it. A ‘check-up’ will be fast, cursory and cheap.

A ‘health diagnostic’ will take longer (4-5 weeks), be thorough and not so cheap.

In Conclusion

On any project over $10m in cost, if you are not spending at least 2% of your project on project health diagnostics then you are hoping, not managing your project.

And commissioning some $10K-$20K ‘health check’ will only give you false comfort. You will not know if there are underlying problems, existing or unidentified risks that can bring your project down. You will be in the same situation in practice that a Sponsor was in when he refused a health check on the grounds that, “If I know the problems I will have to deal with them.” Ignorance may be bliss, but it is neither effective management nor project governance.


Topics: Project Controls, Project Governance

Further Reading



[1] ...

Revision History

First published: Simms, J. (May 2012) as "What Type Of 'Health Check' Do You Need?"

Updated: Chapman, A. (March 2020), Revisions and Corrections