The art of IFS ERP programme assurance: when to compromise and when to hold the line

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Jonty Abbott is an IT leader and strategist who is skilled at building high-performing teams and bringing about meaningful business change. Over his extensive career he’s led delivery of ERP, CRM, WMS and e-Commerce systems and provided programme assurance for landmark IFS implementations. Jonty believes there’s no inherent value in an IT system. It’s what you do with it that counts.

IFS ERP implementations are complex projects with competing demands made daily on project managers. The role of programme assurance is often seen as standing over the project manager to make sure they’re doing it right.

The APM Body of Knowledge defines assurance as, “…the process of providing confidence to stakeholders that projects, programmes and portfolios will achieve their scope, time, cost, quality objectives, and realise their benefits.”

My approach isn’t saying yes to stakeholders. It’s building a great team and backing a great project manager. It’s about inspiring trust in stakeholders through performance and delivery.

Skilled interventions not useless observations

There are methodologies for programme assurance. They usually mean having a set of questions to ask and scoring the project on delivery. While checklists have their place, they only take you so far. Pointing out that the risk log is out of date, or the project plan is full of holes, without the overall context of the programme, can be unhelpful observations that only cause more problems.

Good programme assurance is about discerning what’s suboptimal but won’t make much difference, and what’s a key intervention that will bring about the best outcome.

Programme Assurance works for and with Project Managers

The role for programme assurance is to act as the project manager’s agent, to work for them.

It’s rare that project managers will have the luxury to step back and appraise the overall health of the project. They’re too busy firefighting to keep the project on track. Good project managers don’t need criticism, they need someone who can advise, augment, help them focus in appropriate areas and give them confidence in their decisions.

The best programme assurance I ever had as a project manager was from someone who’d also lived it. His skillful interventions were less about checklists and more like, ‘You’ve spent enough time trying to make that work, you need to let it go and move on; this battle you’re fighting here is absolutely the right battle, keep fighting’.

On one occasion he stressed the importance of stage gates. I was under pressure to finish a build to deadline even though the design hadn’t finished. He assured me I was right to hold the line. He said you can’t finish the build until the design is done. They need to tell you when they’ll finish design and only then you can say when you’ll finish the build. Only then can you start testing. It was a timely reminder of what I already knew but couldn’t see because I was down in the weeds.

More teeth to make decisions

IFS project managers get forced to compromise all the time, and rightly so. But what’s a compromise too far? Great programme assurance will help you with that. They can set red lines at the start of an implementation or come in mid-way to reinforce best practice.

Project managers need someone on their side, to advise and to double-check. Quite often they are put into difficult positions. Programme assurance is there to remind project managers of the business case and the objective. It gives them power to defend their decisions.

Good programme assurance looks at best practice governance

IFS implementations are fast-paced environments where everyone is working to deadlines. To an extent programme assurance doesn’t care about the timeframes, they care about outcomes. Their focus is on quality and delivering the benefits in the business case.

So they look at who you’ve got in the team. Is there anybody not fulfilling a role or a responsibility? Are there roles missing that the project manager should be able to rely on, and in fact they’re doing it themselves?

They look at the number of meetings and how effective they are. They help drive accountability and responsibility to people.

Good programme assurance drives accountability in the business too

The art of programme assurance means holding the business to account as well as the project team. Go lives can be scary and sometimes companies want to make sure everything is perfect before they hit the switch. But there is a limited value in making changes before the system is put into operation. At a certain point you’ve got no idea whether the changes are priorities, because once the system goes live, you’ll learn a lot more about what’s working and where to target improvements. So the business needs to save some energy and resource for hyper-care and the transition to ongoing service and support.

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