Assurance as a critical friend


A critical friend is typically someone who tells it how it is and judges the merits and faults of something. While friends, on the other hand, often bring a high degree of unconditional positive regard with a tendency to see things in a positive light. Despite this, a critical friend is probably the closest to what might be regarded as true friendship; a successful merger of unconditional support and unconditional critique. In a programme or project environment, gateway assurance is the embodiment of a critical friend. When undertaken, prior to a key decision point, it supports the programme or project owner to decide whether to continue, discontinue or vary the scope for implementing the benefits-led investment. It does this by always highlighting any hurdles that may lie ahead and not what has happened in the past as gateway reviews are not an audit activity.

Avoiding the minefield

As a critical friend, an independent review team consisting of experienced and credentialed project portfolio professionals, exists to objectively identify potential risk threats or opportunities that are often beyond the visibility of the programme or project direction and management layers that may threaten successful delivery of outputs, capabilities, outcomes, benefits and/or value to customers. Like Nobel Prize-winner Dr. Daniel Kahneman states in his Thinking, Fast and Slow Book, “It is much easier to identify a minefield when you observe others wandering into it than when you are about to do so” yourself.
An OGC Gateway Review will make transparent both those positive programme or project management practices as well as any “less than ideal’ news that the programme or project owner should be aware of, as part of rational and informed decision making. While gateway reviews are entirely anonymous; any findings or recommendations should not viewed as allocating blame. This serves no purpose as time wasted disputing programme or project information could be better spent redressing any report recommendations, particularly prior to progressing to the next phase or stage. The programme or project team only has to convince the programme or project owner that everything is under control within delegated limits. As such, the gateway review team exists only to highlight potential risk threats or opportunities based on the available information and evidence collected during the interview process whilst the programme or project continues with planning and delivery of the next phase or stage. The programme or project owner can choose to either accept the findings and recommendations, or part their of, or ignore them at their peril. Sometimes cognitive bias exists or a tendency to believe that the initiative will prevail regardless, knowing that it may be delivered late, cost more than planned or worse fail to realise the expected benefits to the customer.

Trusted insider

A gateway review team as a critical friend and trusted insider provides a safe environment to assess the probability of programme or project success prior to transitioning into the next phase or stage – by building trust with the programme or project owner. It enables constructive challenge, targeted questions as well as highlights potential business, service and environmental risks to be redressed. As an independent outsider and being sufficiently removed from the focus of enquiry, the review team as an independent position and expertise, provides findings and recommendations to support detailed reflection and learnings. So when undertaken at the beginning and throughout the programme or project lifecycle, the OGC gateway review process works simultaneously to support the initiative achieve its agreed objectives. In doing so, it ensures a robust investment foundation is in place to effectively support the delivery arrangements into operations. However the benefit to the programme or project does not come from doing the review but through the timely resolution of any report recommendations.

In summary, an important attribute of any programme or project owner role, ultimately accountable for the success or failure of a programme or project, is their ability to make a decision. A gateway review team, therefore, exists to support the programme or project owner make an informed decision on how to proceed next. They do not exist to hinder or stop any programme or project from progressing but there to provide both unconditional support and critique as a true critical friend. What a gateway review team provides is valuable and alternative perspective on the risks and issues confronting the programme or project while challenging the robustness of existing plans and processes. Rather than presume that the road ahead is clear, its better to be warned of any potential minefields that may lie underneath by a critical friend who has the programme or project interests at heart.

Original ‘Assurance as a critical friend’ article by Milvio D., LinkedIn