Programme Assurance

Towards Better Programme Assurance

I have been involved in projects and programmes for a long time. Long enough that I sometimes think I can smell the state of a programme when I am first engaged on it. By smell of course, I really mean pick up certain small aspects of behaviour that give me a feeling of confidence or concern.

We all know that programmes go wrong.  We’ve read the statistics, heard the horror stories, and most of us carry a few scars of our own. Because of this, we now have the discipline of project and programme assurance. Assurance seeks to assess a programme, give confidence that it is as it should be, and propose practical changes to the programme approach where it is found to be wanting. Assurance is about reducing risk and increasing certainty.

There are different views of the best ways of assuring a programme: whether it is an external audit done by an independent expert through to an in-built part of the quality management process within the programme, or possibly a combination of the two. Different practitioners favour different areas to focus on. This is probably because Programme Assurance is still an evolving discipline.

Most of us have learnt that there is not one thing that can go wrong on programmes, but multiple. Big programmes are by their nature complex affairs, and there is no certain single silver bullet that will resolve all a programme’s problems. Having said this, like me, you probably have your own favourite theories and areas to explore to reduce delivery risk.

In this article I want to focus on three aspects of assurance that I think it is worth making sure are included in any Programme Assurance activity if it is really to achieve the desired goals.

Beyond QA

For those readers who are up on their quality management theory will know that quality management normally looks at Quality Assurance and Quality Control.

Quality Assurance looks towards the processes and ensures an endeavour is using the right processes that will lead to a quality outcome. So in a programme context a QA might look for programme collateral such as risk and issues logs. Quality Control on the other hand looks at the quality of the deliverables of a project.

There is a tendency in less mature and experienced organisations to try and perform programme assurance simply through the QA. The problem is that it’s quite easy to produce a very nice looking set of documentation – plans, specifications, designs, status reports, issues logs, risk logs, change controls, and so on - which actually tell you very little about the real status of the programme.

Assuring a programme needs to go beyond the traditional tick box sort of audits. These simply tell you if someone is completing templates or not. The most valuable assurance requires really getting an understanding of the programme. It requires interacting with members of the programme team. It’s not that QA audits have no value, it’s that they are not sufficient on their own to really understand the status of a programme and the risks it faces.

Dare I say it – but programme teams are pretty good at pulling the wool over the eyes of unsuspecting sponsors and stakeholders relying on basic checks of adherence to project management process.

The alternative is to actually engage in the programme. This does not mean that assurance needs to be a huge undertaking. A few short interviews with various members of the programme team will greatly add to the picture of the real status and the real risks. An experienced assurance expert, someone who has been involved in many programmes themselves, can ask a relatively short set of targeted questions to start to build up the true picture. 

This true picture is essential to any worthwhile assurance activity.

Cultural Factors

The next issue is that programmes do not face challenges simply because of what is going on in the programme. Programmes run in organisations, and organisations have cultures. Some behaviours in organisations assist with ensuring smooth delivery. Some get in the way.

Let’s look at an example.

Think of meetings you have been in. I’m sure you have experienced some situations in which meetings drag on, the conversation is neither free flowing creativity nor structured issue resolution. Actions are not noted, and nothing is followed up on. I’m sure you equally have been in organisations in which meetings are short, to the point and action orientated. These situations tend not to be features just of an individual meeting, but of wider organisational culture.

Meetings are just one example of the reality that some teams and organisations have behaviours that when you see them give you immediate confidence that a programme is in safe hands. Other teams and organisations have cultures, that no matter how well intentioned, scoped and resourced a programme is – it will always struggle to be delivered.

Now, anyone engaged in programme assurance is looking to give confidence and make sensible recommendations about a programme – not to reengineer an entire organisation’s culture. There have to be limits to how far an assurance can go. But simply ignoring wider cultural factors will miss out a whole bundle of risks, or put more positively a whole gold mine of opportunities!

Your sponsor

Let’s imagine that you have been engaged to support the assurance of a programme by the programme sponsor. The programme is important to the sponsor, and they wisely decide that they want greater confidence that the initiative is going to successfully deliver. One of the more tricky issues facing anyone involved in Programme Assurance is that the person who has asked you for help, may be the root of many of the issues on the programme.

For instance, how many programmes are bedevilled with slow decision making, insufficient resources, too many constraints – such as unreasonably fixed timelines, budgets and scope? How many programmes suffer from elephants in the room, where everyone on the programme team knows there are problems but no-one sticks their hand up and points them out to a senior and overly assertive sponsor?

The simple truth in assurance is that the people who have engaged you to do the assurance work may be part of the problem. This can be a delicate issue to resolve. It is one that is often easier for an external whose career does not depend on that very same sponsor to point out. Whatever the situation though, if the assurance work is to be worthwhile somehow, an honest discussion with the sponsor needs to be had.


Programme Assurance is an evolving discipline. One that has already shown its worth in many situations. For Programme Assurance to really be worthwhile it needs to go beyond tick-box audits. It needs to be performed by those who are willing to try and really understand the programme, the cultural context in which it is being run and the effects of the behaviour of sponsors and other stakeholders. 

Richard Newton is one of our lead change practitioners, an award winning author, speaker and facilitator who works with organisations to deliver their strategic visions, making them a reliable operational reality”.