Does this title sound odd to you? Are you like many PMs trying to escape audits as much as possible? Do you consider them as a waste of time at best and a potential killer in extreme cases?
I did also share these feelings but it does not need to be this way. Audits are very worthwhile, and can be productive and of real benefit to you and your project.
I suggest starting from the inception: who has requested the audit? why? who are the auditors? what is the scope?
I found with experience that finding the answer to the latter of these questions, i.e. scope of the audit, will often shed light on the others. Indeed, once shared and understood, the scope will highlight several areas of investigations and review. It could be the project management practice, the costs, the quality of deliverables, the security, the progress against schedule, the details of the project plan or any combination of these and more.
With a little bit of thinking and discussions with the auditors, it should become clear why this audit and who has requested it. Also, the type of auditors you get, internal versus external, large consulting firms versus specialized players, will tell a lot about the importance granted to the audit and its aim.
For example, we were audited during an Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system construction and deployment. It was an internal audit. Once we understood that the focus was essentially to ensure that we were in control of project spend and managing the risks correctly, it was easy for the team to provide clear evidence of what we were doing in these areas. We showed our expenses tracking process, time tracking method, issues log and risk register. The Chief Finance Officer was reassured by the findings. Additionally, the auditors helped us to further highlight our top risks to the steering committee during a specific risk management brainstorming and review session with them.
Next suggestion is to learn about the process that the auditors plan to follow. It’s important to understand their approach to better prepare the team for this event that they may initially perceive negatively. Usually, it starts with a few interviews of key project team members and stakeholders, eventually preceded by some documentation request and analysis. The next step often involves further interviews to deep dive into specific areas.
An experience I had about the importance of the above was on a IT project where we were in deep trouble during deployment. As a young PM, I did not have the experience or clout to « manage » the auditor (an external one in this instance). He came in and ran his show without explaining the process to anybody. He made negative comments quite early on. The team became very concerned and somewhat defensive. People provided all materials requested but in a rather unstructured way. There was no overall framework/story around the raw data. The audit took long and was very frustrating for all. In the end, the report did not help the project through its difficult times. In this specific instance, an audit, that could have brought value, ended up killing the project and I still have bad feelings about this useful but painful experience.
You should also consider that the auditors will most certainly have some checkpoints with management and audit sponsors. They will share their progress at these sessions, expose findings, test the water on initial ideas (to see potential reactions), and at a later stage present recommendations (draft and final).
Last year, I was the lead for the audit of an internal application. As I had been several times on the receiving end of audits, I placed specific focus in this instance on explaining the milestones and approach for the audit. We explained the scope and who would do what. We shared the findings with the team as they became available to avoid surprises. We gave them the opportunity to comment (which they did and we took their input into account). We shared our recommendations with the project team before management and also helped define and put in place action plans to address the identified issues. We even followed up after the audit on execution of these action plans. This, I am sure, was much more beneficial to the company than a one-off report.
Whatever the scenario, the key for the PM is to actively support the auditors throughout their investigations. We shall provide all relevant information in full transparency and ask our team members to do the same. We shall also make time for them in our busy agendas. We want to be valuable and positive contributors. As we do so, we may gain the privilege to be involved in the preparation of the documents and sessions for management. It could be limited to validate the correctness of facts but that is already very worthwhile. It could be to understand what they will highlight up to discussing some of their draft recommendations.
In my PM role, when asked by the auditors about my expectations of the audit, I highlight 2 items:
- Get valuable recommendations to improve the project
- Fairness towards team members.
Next stage is when the audit reaches completion and produces its recommendations. Unavoidably, there will be some you agree with or can understand. There will be others that are tougher to accept. In any case, it is absolutely critical to remain positive and open. Moving into defensive mode will never help. Also, keep in mind that consultants/auditors recommendations are one thing; which of these recommendations management will decide to act upon is something else (that is more critical to you and your project) .
As soon as you understand which corrective or improvement actions are retained, share these with the team in a positive manner. In my experience, it is often the case that the auditors report is not shared; only highlights of the reports are presented that foster the team towards productive actions.
As a conclusion, I suggest that if your project is not yet being audited, you consider which areas could be improved using external advice and eventually solicit an audit on these: Get help before someone above you decides that you need to be helped.
On many projects, you will find that auditors will greatly help you to firm up some aspects such as scope control, change management rigor or raising the involvement of your project sponsors in risk mitigation. They look at your project with an external and therefore more objective than you ever can be.