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Adding value in project audits

Published: 28 Jun 2022

Project consultant and author Lesley Elder-Aznar outlines the most common mistakes in project audits and gives advice on how to avoid the pitfalls.

The traditional image of an auditor is often one of someone with a clipboard and a lengthy checklist, with the focus on matching numbers and confirming compliance (or otherwise) with rules and regulations.  

But for those working in the quality sector, the demands of the job are changing and the need to add value through the audit or assurance process is ever increasing. Clients are demanding more insight and, in some cases, they are looking for solutions and recommendations from their auditors.  

This is certainly the case in the world of project management. The pace of technological change, Brexit in the UK, the Covid-19 pandemic, and shifts in global political economy are forcing organisations to drive through changes faster than ever.  

Best practice 

Large, complex projects and programmes of change impact every area of the business and often failures in communication result in changes hitting the same parts of the organisation at the same time, and even contradicting each other. Inevitably, this results in confusion for employees and customers, a lack of adoption of new processes and a drop in efficiency, as well as millions of pounds in wasted investment.   

Adding value through project auditing is not just about checking whether the project is within budget, or that there is a plan. To really add value the auditor must look at the project in the context of the organisation and whether it will realise its intended outcomes.

As the number of these large transformation programmes and projects increases, so does the need for people to audit them. To be able to audit a project, or portfolio of projects, it´s necessary to have some experience in the field, or at least an understanding of project management best practice. People with this knowledge, combined with auditing skills, are a rare breed indeed. 

Which is why those operating in the audit and assurance space may need to up their game. Adding value through project auditing is not just about checking whether the project is within budget, or that there is a plan. To really add value, the auditor must look at the project in the context of the organisation and whether it will realise its intended outcomes. 

Five most common project mistakes 

Here are my five most common project mistakes that you should look out for if you are conducting a project audit. 

  1. The project isn´t aligned with the overall strategy of the business – there may not be a formal project selection process or selection criteria in place. Pet projects are started by senior managers without due consideration for alignment to overall strategy.  
    Action: ask to see the project governance framework and project selection criteria.  
  2. IT projects fail to make an impact – the system has been planned and implemented without considering the needs of users or customers. There is no change management plan to engage users, or involve them in developing the solution. User adoption is low and business case benefits are not realised.   
    Action: request a copy of the implementation or change management plan. 
  3. Lack of capacity in the organisation to support the change – specialist teams, such as human resources and risk, are already stretched and cannot free up resources to work on the project. Operational teams are often impacted more than most and are required to provide subject matter expertise on current processes and systems as well as support user testing and training. Unless additional resource has been accounted for in the project business case, it´s unlikely that they will have sufficient capacity to support multiple projects.  
    Action: request the project resource plan and the organisation change roadmap showing all planned project implementations. 
  4. Change fatigue – this has become a more pressing issue for many organisations undergoing multiple simultaneous changes in response to the pandemic. The need for remote working and online business, as well as the ever-increasing pace of technological change, have led to an increase in change fatigue. Employees need time to absorb, process and apply changes. Workplace stress, burnout and increased employee attrition are the result of badly planned and implemented change.   
    Action: ask to see the output of any staff engagement or motivation surveys and talk to impacted employees 
  5. Inconsistent project documentation – project documents should tell a consistent story. From the business case to the project initiation document, requirements documents, project plans and budget plan, the financials, dates, scope and resource requirements should be consistent. If there is a marked change in any of these it should be supported by an approved change request document.
    Action: review documents and ask for an explanation of any inconsistencies.  

This is a very high-level look at some of the most common issues in project management today. The pace of change in organisations shows no sign of slowing down and the need for auditors who are able to examine projects and project portfolios in more depth will be an increasingly valuable and sought-after skill.  

Learn more about managing quality and risk in projects.