Project Management for Complex Investigations

Project Management for Complex Investigations

Project Management for Complex Investigations

Sharon Loder

Executive Director Investigation Division

Independent Commission Against Corruption

Presentation delivered at the

11th National Investigations Symposium

Four Season Hotel Sydney

Wednesday 9 November 2016


Many investigation policies require management practices thatare based on project management principles. However in practice, the management of complex investigations presents real challenges for this ideal. By complex, I am referring to those investigations that do, or have the potential to involve multiple parties, multiple allegations, composite subject matter or significant and wide-ranging systemic issues. The management of anything but a simple investigation can be a chaotic and variable progression toward a destination of unknown timeframe, cost and scope, to say little of the additional complications involved in managing a number of theseinvestigations simultaneously.

Some of the challenges for the management of complex investigations are well understood:

  • inadequate or absentplanning practices
  • poor decision making
  • problems withteamwork and communication
  • investigation policies and procedures are lacking, or not understood
  • there are no systems, orinadequate ones to manage large volumes of information and data
  • orteam members do not have sufficientexpertise in the particular subject matter of the investigation or the right forensic expertise is not available.

While some of these problems mayarise due to a lack of appropriate resources, some are also the inevitable product of traditional investigation management frameworks. Often there is a misfit between the systems and processes traditionally used to manage investigation activityand the actual nature and flow of that activity.

About three years ago at the Commission, we began to look very closely atthis problem. This led us on a journey, still in progress, of significant change in the way we understand the lifecycle of an investigation as a project and the project management principles and practices that are best suited to that lifecycle.

This presentation is about the key things we learnedalong the way. There were some investigation management practices we were already applying but just did not fully appreciate why they worked. There were other management practices we knew we needed to change because they were not working that well but we didn’t fully appreciate why. I hope some of the insights we gained in the process may be of interest and benefit to you in the context of your own organisation and its investigative work.

Although this presentation is about the management of complex investigations, many of the principles we will look at are equally important for not so complex investigations.

The traditional investigation management model

There is almost a universal approach to applying project management principles to the conduct of an investigation. Indeed, the Australian Government Investigation Standards,[1] clause 3.1 states:

3.1 Investigation Management

Agencies must employ investigation management procedures which are based on project management principles of managing resources, processes, work to be undertaken, time and outcomes.

The applicationof project management principles to the conduct of an investigation would seem quite appropriate but what kinds of project management principles are best suited to that exercise?

The majority of project management practices for investigations are based on assumptions about the fit between an investigation lifecycle and a traditional project lifecycle.

A traditional project lifecycle is a plan driven process that as a generalisation, isdepicted in this model:

However, when we try to apply a traditional project management model to anything but a very simple investigation, we immediately encounter problems.

Firstly, it is in the nature of a complex investigation thatthe investigation scope and purpose, and therefore the outcomes to be realised from its conduct, is highly variable throughout the investigation lifecycle. This variation occurs along the way as weuncover additional subject areas and allegations that require further exploration. Those additional subject areas and allegations require further planning and re-planning, and resources and time-frames are adjusted as the priorities of the investigation shift to accommodate them.

Secondly, all or most of the detailed planning for an investigation is unable to be undertaken up front because there is insufficient information at the beginningof an investigation to support a plan driven approach. The traditional project management model is based on an assumption that the information needed to inform the scope and purpose of an investigation, its completion, timeframe and resources is available at the initiation and planning phases and that conducting the investigation is then a matter of executing the plan, and monitoring and controlling compliance with it. Although procedures may require the investigation plans to be regularly updated, my own experience is that the investigation plan created at the start of an investigation is rarely revisited once approved by management, and thereafterit is relegated to an historical record of where it all began, and one that bears only a basic resemblance to where it all ended.

In reality, an investigation as a project is empirically based, and empirically based projects require a project management model that is flexible and responsive to changing circumstances and requirements. In other words, the project management model for a complex investigation needs to be “agile”.

Agile project managementprinciples

Although the word “agile” was not specifically adopted in connection with incremental project management methodologies until the early 2000s, agile project management concepts had their genesis in the late 1990’s in the area of software development at a time when it was increasingly obvious that traditional project management methods were unsuited to creative, empirically based projects.

Today there are numerous commercially developed and applied agile project management models. At the Commission we considered and explored a number of models and then focused on a particular model for training and implementation purposes that is both scalable and suited to our particular operational environment. All models however, are based on some universally understood principles for agile project management.

There are threewaysto conceptualise an investigation as a projectthat are fundamental tounderstanding the how agile project management principles might applyto investigations:

  • firstly, how an investigation as a project, is a series of decisions
  • secondly, how an investigation as a project,fits within the broader framework and systems of an agency
  • and thirdly, how an investigation as a project, is a progression of phases

An investigation as a series of decisions

In conducting an investigation and planning operational activities, we are necessarily making many decisions. If we understand an investigation as a series of decisions, working toward achieving a defined operational objective, then our success in achieving that objectiveat all, or in a timely way, will depend on the appropriateness of those decisions.

Agile project principles recognise that decision making within a project needs to be responsive and informed. This equally applies to ouroperational decision-making. “Responsive” means that when undertaking an investigation we need to have the ability to react to changing circumstances. “Informed” means that operational decisions are made with relevant, current and up-to-date information.

In a traditional plan driven project management model, because the focus is on up-front planning, it is also therefore focused on up-front decision-making. However, an agile model allows for decisions to be made closest in time to when the decision is required. There are of course some decisions in an investigation that really do need to be made up front, but an agile model recognises that many key decisions will be need to be made in the course of an investigation when, as a result of what has been discovered during the investigation, the right information is available to inform quality and timely decisions.

Good decision-making is not just about having good information, it is also about being able to assess and evaluate the information within the correct context. Agile principles focus on maximising our awareness and understanding of the context for decision making so that we can correctly apply, use and interpret the content of the information as it is presented.

There are two important elements of context for an investigation: The first is the business case for the investigation. The second is the cumulative content of what has been discovered and learned in the investigation at the relevant decision point. Agile principlessupport a management and governance model that ensures these two elements of context are given appropriate attention wheninvestigation decisions are made.

The business case for an investigation:

What do we mean by the “Business Case” for an investigation? The Business Case for an investigation is the justification for it from an organisational perspective. In ordinary terms, it answers the value question of, “Why are we doing this? What are we seeking to accomplish here?”, or “What is our purpose?” Our understanding of the value in conducting the investigation is directly tied to the resources (and methods) we are prepared to expend to achieve that value.

If the business case for an investigation is not spelt out or it is too weakly defined, investigation decision-making will occur without reference to it as an important element of context and the investigation decision-making is likely to be chaotic, inefficient or inconsistent. This is why the business case or the value justification for an investigation is not only of strategic concern but has direct and important operational implications. I will say more about this last point a little later.

The cycle of operational decision- making

The second important element of context can be understood within the cycle of operational decision making. In an agile project model, decision-making is part of a cycle of discrete planned activity involving steps that are repeated over and over until we are satisfied we have achieved an appropriate outcome. That cycle is depicted in this model.

In some agile project models each cycle of this activity is called a “sprint”. Each “sprint” is defined by a period of time, usually around 4 weeks, at the end of which feedback is provided on what was achieved and learned during the sprint.

Let’s consider more closely what each step in the cycle involves:

  • In speculating and planning,we use informed prediction because prediction is necessary if the information we have is insufficient to form a comprehensive plan. It requires us to decide what to explore, and preparing for the possibility of finding what we speculated we might find. In an investigation we speculate about the value of doing things like interviewing particular witnesses or executing a search warrant, we decide what to do, plan to do it and also plan for what we might discover in doing it.
  • In exploringand learning,we gather information and evidence through the application of those investigation practices we planned to do.
  • In reviewing and adaptingwe assess the content of what was gathered in our exploring and learning and also how well we undertook that process. Armed with that information, we complete the cycle by asking whether the investigation is still on the right track and is being undertaken in the best way. We ask what we are going to do differently next based on the information we now have, as opposed to what we started with.We make decisions about these things and what we have learned, and then feed those back into our next cycle of speculating and planning so that our operational planning is fully integrated into the evolving investigation.

Following these steps within each cycle of activity and engaging the cycles in a deliberative way, ensures we develop a strong context for our operational decision-making because in that way the content of the investigation, what we have gathered and learned from it, is incrementally and cumulatively invested into that process.

An investigation within the organisation framework

When we conduct an investigation, the management, planning and conduct of that investigation takes place at different levels within an organisation’s structure and systems. If we understand that an investigation as a project involves activities that occur at different layers in anagencywith people in those layers performing different roles, then our success in conducting and managing the investigation, depends upon how well those activities and roles are aligned with and supported by the broader framework and systems of the organisation.

Agile project principles recognise four layers within a project where discrete roles and activities sit.

The governance layer

The governance layer is concerned with the Executive, executive decisions and strategy. At this layer in the project, the executive deal with multiple investigations, other projects and organisational priorities. In this layer the Executive is primarily concerned with return on investment or the net gain after the investment of resources. At the executive layer, concern is with thevalue justification or business case for an investigation and the prioritisation of limited resources. The strategic focus here on resources is not so much, “what have we got to work with?” but “what are we doing with that?” This is because we all generally have to work with fixed budgets and time frames limited by service delivery standards.

Decisions about which matters should be accepted for, or made the subject of an investigation, the scope or changes in the scope of an investigation, and whether to continue or close an investigation are governance decisions that involve important considerations such as balancing strategic risks and opportunities, and prioritising and determining the commitment of significant agency resources.It is important then thatan agency’s investigation policy and procedural framework ensures that these decisions are made only at the appropriate level and decision makers have access to the kind of information about the investigation that will actually assist and is relevant for making those decisions.

The project management layer

The project management layer is concerned with the overall management of one or more investigations, how an investigation is delivering value for the agency and feeding that back into the governance layer. This layer is primarily concerned with directors or managers and they are concernedwhether appropriate day to day management decisions are being made at operational level and communicating feedback from the governance layer. It is also important here that an agency’s policy and procedural framework ensures that decision makers at this level have access to the right kind of information about the investigation in order to make those decisions.

The operational layer

The operational layer is where the value in undertaking the investigation is created on an ongoing basis. This is where investigation team members are involved in the cyclic process of speculating/planning, learning/exploring, and reviewing/adapting. In this layer the involvement of the investigation team leaders is important and is where team leadership and the day to day management of people is important. This layer is where most things happen in the investigation.

Earlier I mentioned how a clear statement of the business case for an investigation is a key contextual element for good operational decision making. It is equallyimportant that there is a shared understanding,between the governance, management and operational personnel, about the business case for any particular investigation, and there is acorrect translation of that understanding down and feedback up through each of these layers. The commitment and focus of the investigation team to the investigation will be greater when everyone understands what they are contributing and how they are adding value, both at a strategic and operational level.

The technical layer

The technical layer of an investigation is concerned with how particular technical activities or discrete investigation practices are carried out or should be carried out according to the particular requirements of the investigation. In this layer, individuals, either working alone, or together, apply specialist skills or techniques. Examples may include the forensic analysis of documents or obtaining and executing a search warrant.


It is important to understand this layered concept of activity taking place within an investigation because there are different kinds of decision-making that occur within each layer and that requires different kinds of information to inform those decisions. Investigation policies, procedures and systems need to support appropriate communication between the different layers of activity, whether that communication isinformal or found in investigation progress reports and formal briefings.

Also, in some agencies, individuals, as a matter of necessity or function can be involved in all four layers of the investigation activity at different times. This kind of situational role definition comes with real risk and individuals involved in that way need to understand how performing roles in multiple layers may affect good decision-making. Most project management models, whether traditional or agile, have rules about certain project roles not being performed by the same individual but this may be unavoidable in some organisations because of their size or particular function. The reasons for this role separation are quite obvious:

  • The information (or content) and context for good decision making within each layer is not the same. So that for example, the information and context you are working with, in the governance layer, is invariably inadequate for good decision making in the operational or technical layer and the alternative is also true.
  • Also, role confusion results in misunderstandings in communication. For example, any communication by an individual whose primary role sits within the governance layer will necessarily be understood as a direction, irrespective of the layer in which that communication occurred and irrespective of whether it was in fact intended as conveying an actual decision or direction.

It is therefore important that policies, procedures and systems for communication and reporting recognise and are designed to reduce these risks.

An investigation as a progression of phases

Like any project, an investigation doesn’t just automatically start because a complaint has been made. There is usually a process for determining which complaints will be investigated and which complaints will be dealt with in alternative ways or whether no further action will be taken at all. Also, when an investigation is completed, there are outcomes from that investigation that require additional work, follow-up and monitoring. Prosecution or disciplinary actions may result or procedural or policy recommendations need to be implemented. This means that in the complete lifecycle of an investigation as a project, there are important activities that occur before the investigation commences and also after it ends.