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Programme assurance – an effective ‘sleeping pill’?

Are you sleeping well, confident that your critical programme is on track to deliver? If so, enjoy the rest of your day.

If not, then perhaps independent programme assurance could help. Many organisations have tried assurance, using different approaches – including peer reviews, internal audits and independent external reviews – each of which is designed to increase confidence that a programme is on track to deliver the promised outcomes. But, while some organisations have got huge value from programme assurance, some programmes continue to fail. We are finding that some organisations are not getting the significant improvement in programme outlook and delivery confidence that they were expecting.

Effective programme assurance requires four conditions to be in place.

A focus on the ‘big picture’ risks

While the programme delivery team focuses on immediate problems, the programme assurance team must keep an eye on the big-picture risks. We recently reviewed an organisation’s customer service programme and found that the programme team had redeployed resources from the next stage to focus on short-term delivery milestones in the current stage. This compressed the resources and time available for the subsequent stage, creating a ‘bow wave’ that threatened to become a tsunami engulfing the whole team. By recognising this risk and taking steps to mitigate it, we put the programme back on course to reliable delivery.

The right assurance team – with the right skills, experience and character

If they are to become trusted peers to the senior programme leadership and act as trusted advisors to stakeholders, the programme assurance team must have the right skills and capabilities, bringing experience and expertise from a variety of backgrounds. They must also be able to establish rapport and credibility quickly, demonstrably keep business outcomes the focus of all they do and say, come up with practical solutions rather than pointing out the obvious problems, and demonstrate that they are not there just to score points over the delivery team. 

The gravitas to act as the business’s conscience and a ‘critical friend’ to key stakeholders

The value of programme assurance is the impact it has – not the quality of reports. We have found that the gravitas and style of working of the assurance leadership is critical to its impact. We have helped organisations to establish assurance teams that become both the business’s ‘conscience’ and the stakeholders’ critical friend by:

  • focusing on the programme’s strategic goals and objectives 
  • maintaining a detached, objective and independent perspective 
  • flushing out the ‘elephant in the room’ by confronting and addressing difficult issues 
  • providing rigorous review and challenge on progress and outlook 
  • providing constructive views based on insight and experience. 

An assurance approach tailored to the specific needs of the programme

Programmes come in different shapes and sizes. The risks and stakeholders’ concerns vary accordingly and evolve through the programme lifecycle. We have found that the value of programme assurance is significantly diminished if the approach and team are not flexed to meet the specific needs and challenges as the programme progresses. While, for some organisations, a one-off health check is sufficient, for others we have created a tailored assurance team and areas of focus each time a critical decision needs to be made or a checkpoint is reached. Similarly, we recently helped a client to deliver a high-profile programme by establishing a small on-site programme assurance team to provide regular independent reports, with specialists providing ‘deep-dive’ reviews.

Programme assurance with impact

When these conditions are in place, we have found that programme assurance can have a huge impact on the success of a programme. It also improves the confidence of key stakeholders – that they have an accurate picture and believe it will deliver – and, by doing so, helps you sleep soundly.

We have helped to deliver some of the most complex programmes in the world. This includes providing delivery assurance for the UK Financial Services Authority’s Solvency II programme (their largest ever programme), and mitigating programme risks for a UK energy distributor while reducing project timescales by six months.

Contact the programme and portfolio management team


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