Consider a Cold Eye Review

Input from independent experts can bolster prospects for project success

By Brett W. Bailey, Pathfinder, LLC

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Cold eye reviews can apply to a wide variety of activities during the FEL 1–3 and execution phases, such as risk-management, project-readiness and cost/schedule assessments as well as peer reviews and full-scale independent project reviews.

The experts for cold eye reviews may come from third-party organizations — some of which have honed their skills in this area to make it a core competency — or from internal groups. Most importantly, it is essential that these experts aren't part of the project team.

Many companies concentrate their in-house expertise in project management offices or centers of excellence. Such internal groups contain a core of experienced practitioners, typically including subject matter experts (SMEs) in technical and nontechnical (e.g., project management) areas. Because these specialists generally aren't assigned to any project on a full-time basis, they usually are considered independent of the project team, thus satisfying objectivity and transparency requirements.

Sometimes a firm with such an internal group lacks enough experts for all reviews needed at the moment. In those cases, most organizations assign their specialists to projects with the most strategic value and then turn to outsourcing to fill any gaps on other projects. Some companies have set up contractual relationships with third parties to provide necessary levels of expertise on an "on-call" basis.

Regardless of whether they come from a third party or an internal group, experts used for cold eye reviews typically have extensive familiarity with application of industry best practices as well as in-depth experience with a broad range of projects. So, they can come up to speed on the particular project very quickly.

The task of these experts is not only to identify problems but also to provide practical recommendations for corrective measures, and to transfer some of their knowledge via "lessons learned" sharing, training, mentoring and coaching.

The tools used in these cold eye reviews often are just as important as the experience of the team. Most world-class PDPs include techniques, tools, metrics and practices to facilitate effective disciplined project development and decision-making. Some of the metrics and practices are the Project Definition Rating Index (PDRI), project cost or schedule reviews, value-improving practices (VIPs) and project health checks. To ensure consistency across projects, the PDP should provide clear guidelines/standards as to the deliverables required and what's necessary to move beyond any specific gate.

The most effective teams rely on pre-established checklists or scoring sheets during reviews and apply task-appropriate methodology, making maximum use of quantifiable rather than subjective measures. The overall scoring associated with these assessments gives the review sponsor(s) and project team an important check as to where the project really stands in the process.

An example of a tool that has gained widespread acceptance and application as a best practice is the PDRI, which was developed by the Construction Industry Institute. The PDRI provides a scoring methodology that assesses appropriate-for-phase maturity of items such as business and project objectives, engineering deliverables and project execution planning. A project may undergo as many as three PDRI assessments — typically at the end of each of the first three phases (FEL 1–3), as detailed in Figure 2. PDRI results inform the gatekeepers of where the project actually resides within the process and what areas require further work to align with the appropriate phase.

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