4 Core Questions to Diagnose Project Maturity

by Albert Ponsteen and Iryna Viter at Epicflow / 10/23/2017 2:11:05 PM


Multi-project environments are volatile and backbreaking. They demand high-level planning that never comes in a flash of intuition. They also involve a great deal of uncertainty and lead to resource conflicts. Project experts end up torn between many projects, while C-level executives are incapable of examining the body of their business holistically.

While working on my PhD with Professor R. J. Kusters, I’ve been looking for a proper way to determine project maturity and I came up with a very short self-assessment as part of running workshops and advising business experts on project management. We’ve estimated that asking the following questions to key stakeholders helps to audit the project management maturity of a company and see how the land lies.

  • To a busy employee: Which task should you pick next, and why?  
  • To a project manager: What’s the status of an arbitrary milestone?
  • To a resource manager: How does your team perform?
  • To a C-level manager: What is blocking your top priority projects?

Which task should you pick next, and why?  

What stands behind the first question is that employees often don’t have a clue about their next priorities. On the contrary, they tend to rely on their own reasoning, which often doesn’t match the expectations of senior management. To avoid conflict situations and create perfect harmony in the organization, every employee should have a clear view of the priorities. Knowing where they’re heading task by task keeps teams engaged, focused, and proactive. Employees always present the first layer of project maturity, as they’re the key players in the environment.

What’s the status of an arbitrary milestone?

In fact, when it comes to the status of an arbitrary milestone in a multi-project environment, project managers often shrug their shoulders – they can rarely predict bottlenecks or name the obstacles in their projects. Even experienced project managers face this problem because they’re dependent on circumstances that are outside the scope of their projects – like lack of resource availability caused by delays in other projects, which is the topic of my research. Not being able to answer this second question means that project experts don’t have enough information to meet their deadlines and cost initiatives.

How does your team perform?

Resource managers rarely can answer questions about resource capacity and load, so you can imagine the reaction when you ask them about their team’s performance. The main reason to ask about team performance is because managers should be able to plan based on past experience. You might think that you have a certain capacity available, but if your team isn’t able to deliver up to this standard, your planning is wishful thinking only.

What is blocking your top priority projects?

From our experience, C-level managers don’t want to get involved in small project details. This has to do with their inner conflict between focusing on current operations versus focusing on the long-term health of the organisation. When they start too many initiatives, they have too many issues on their plate (see TOC Goldratt). Too little attention by management is often a key constraint in getting flow in projects.

C-level managers must be aware of which projects require management attention not only at the macro level – when a problem occurs, it’s essential to zoom in to the micro level and get a detailed look at what’s happening on the workfloor. This is where the action happens and where your flow gets stuck. This management style is close to what Elon Musk calls nanomanagement. Unconventional as it seems, this approach helps Tesla show immaculate project maturity. You can’t rely on weekly – or even worse, monthly – management reports to take action. Volatile multi-project environments require real-time insights that enable you to take action before your projects enter the project red zone.

When asking these four questions, most of the time the answers we get are vague – not objective at all – and they signal the low project management maturity of the company. Frequently, different employees give different answers, meaning that the company lacks alignment. The inability to provide answers aligned with objectives, can cost companies fortunes, however, as I’ve seen from my own experience. Lack of access to important project information such as priorities, workloads, and bottlenecks results in project delays in the future. That’s why we take these core questions very seriously.

A tool for a fool?

To be able to respond to any of the above questions with confidence, you’ll find support in project planning applications. Such systems must facilitate meaningful communication among CEOs, managers, and those executing. Instead of creating a huge list of requirements that a system has to meet, you can use these four core questions to judge if a tool fits your needs. Following the questions is also a good way to check if the consultant is selling the tool that will help you answer these questions.  

Bad management can cause serious damage to your projects, but there’s always a way out. If you’re evaluating a tool, make sure it can help you get answers to these four questions, embracing four staff levels employees, resource managers, project leaders, and C-level executives. Otherwise, your projects won’t grow in maturity. Who wants to stand still?


Albert Ponsteen is a Dutch researcher in the domain of multi-project management and a PhD candidate in Business Process Management & IT at the School of Management, Open Universiteit Nederland, in Heerlen. He’s an active member of the publication team of the Dutch National Research Group (DNRG) in project management. His knowledge underlies the Epicflow project management software that helps businesses pilot many projects simultaneously.

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