What Does Project Governance Really Mean?

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Sometimes the linguistic root of a word can completely mislead us about its present usage. But not so, in the case of Governance. Indeed, the origin of our modern word is very enlightening about the proper roles of governance in a modern project.

We get our modern word from the ancient Greeks. For them, the Kubernator or kybernētēs was the helmsman, of their principal warships, triremes. As a highly experienced seaman, the kubernator was the commander of the vessel at sea. He would set the course, determine tactics, and steer the vessel.

What better summary could I offer for the role of governance on a project: setting direction, making decisions and overseeing direction? What I shall not discuss in this article is the “who” of project governance (this blog already covered the role of PMOs adding value via Project Governance.) These three roles can be fulfilled together or separately, by one person or many together. But without doubt, the governance function requires all three.

what is project governance?

Direction-Setting

Why do projects fail? Often it is for the simplest of reasons: that it is the wrong project at the wrong time. Maybe the organization is over-stretched, or the technology is not mature enough. For whatever detailed reason, the failure is often baked in by a failure at the top, to properly evaluate whether this is the right project.

Warren Bennis noted that it is a manager’s role to do things right, but the role of leaders to choose the right things to do. This needs a clear view of the strategic fit of each potential project, and a selection of which projects the organization takes on, that is driven by priorities, risk balancing, resource availability, and many other factors.

There are, of course, tools to support this process. But the role of governance is not just a blind application of tools. The Greek kubernator was highly experienced and expected to show good judgement and wisdom. For us, this means considering long and short term interests of your organization and avoiding the ‘greedy trap’ of taking on one more worthy project, despite having insufficient resources to do it, lead it, or govern it properly.

Decision-Making

Decision-making is currently receiving the attention it deserves. The business journals are filled with articles and the management sections of airport bookshops are filled with books on the subject. I recommend any project manager to read a sample of these at least, and understand what makes a good decision, and how to set up the conditions you need, in your project.

The challenge that we face is that we cannot simply define a good decision as the right decision. We cannot know, at the point of making a decision, whether it will turn out to be right. But we must know whether it s a “good” decision, and therefore more likely to be right. It is therefore imperative that project governance structures embed the conditions for good decision-making. So, what are these conditions?

Evidence

You need to give each decision-maker independent access to the data. It is also important that the data they get is in as much of a raw, unprocessed form as possible. Any processing of the data risks selecting which data to emphasis, and introducing a bias in the way it is presented. If every decision-maker gets the same processed data, they are all subject to the same bias.

Authority

The decision-maker or group must have the full authority needed, to make and commit to their decisions. This is largely about legitimacy and status, but also partly about the intellectual authority. Do they have the experience and expertise to make a sound decision?

Process

The process of decision-making can embed faulty analysis and bias; or it can counter them. So training is vital, to help decision-makers understand how to structure their process. This includes creating proper objectivity, and the need to balance data gathering, analysis, and exploration, against the need for timely decisions.

Project Oversight

Structuring and analysis of project data is also vital to the governance role of overseeing your project. This is about ensuring that a project is on track, meeting the needs of the organization and complying with rules, regulations, and procedures.

Whilst there are a lot of important skills for people involved in governance to learn, perhaps their single most important asset will be curiosity. This will lead them to deploy the two principal techniques: questioning and listening, and zooming.

Questioning

There is an art to asking good questions. If you a responsible for the governance of a project, then you must be prepared to take a forensic approach to uncovering the messy realities. This will be especially so at stage gates, where you need to gather and test the evidence, before committing to  a major project decision.

This kind of questioning can often become adversarial, which is why may gateway processes involve people external to the project. But this in turn risks leaving the project manager and their team feeling even more under hostile scrutiny. The challenge for us all is to adopt good governance as part of our mindset, and to see questioning – even at its most forensic – as helpful enquiry.

Listening

Questioning is of little use unless it is accompanied by high quality listening. Yet we all know people whose habit is to ask questions to make a point, or to only ask questions for which they believe they know the answer. This of course sets them up for an argument.

You can only steer a true course if you hear all of the evidence and assess every opinion. So, having asked a question, stop thinking about the next one and start paying attention to the answer you get.

Zooming

Every project manager I now has suffered under one or both of these challenging behaviors from sponsors, bosses, clients or steering groups. Behavior number one is a dogged determination to get into the details of everything the PM is doing. They have a meddling disposition that leaves you feeling as though you have no autonomy and practical ability to lead your own project. On the other hand, this behavior frequently misses the big picture and therefore neglects the most important strategic issues while it focuses exclusively on the immaterial details.

Behavior number two is almost the direct opposite. Detail seems irrelevant to the big strategic picture to some people. So they select to ignore, or cannot be bothered to engage with, the detail. This is all well and good when things are going well, but when you need to root out the devil… Sometimes we need our governance tier to dive into the precise facts, to see what we, as project managers, are missing.

So, imagine the ultimate zoom lens. It can focus into detail like a microscope, yet can zoom out to see the whole project universe in a single view as well. This is what projects sponsors and boards need. It is a willingness to adjust to the necessary scale, along with the perception to know which is right to focus on, at any time.

Discipline

Good governance does not come easily: it takes discipline. An organization needs to set up governance structures, train the sponsors and board members who make them up, and enforce basic procedures that will assure the quality of their work. I also believe that, to fulfill their governance roles well, people need training in strategy setting, decision-making and oversight.

But what can you do, as a project manager, to make some of this happen? Here is a short checklist of some practical steps to consider.

  • Set up a project board training event to discuss decision-making processes and information requirements.
  • Discuss the same with your sponsor.
  • Prioritize strong record keeping that creates transparency, accountability, and a ready source of good data to help oversight and decision-making process function robustly.
  • Establish a stage gate process for your project, regardless of whether your organization mandates it.
  • Allocate time in your project plan for the governance process, and also for those involved (including yourself) to prepare thoroughly.
  • Set up criteria for important decisions at the outset of projects.
  • Create a requirement for every governance decision to be tested against whether the decision-makers believe it to be in the best interests of their organization.
  • Carry out scenario analyses and pre-mortem exercises, to ensure your decision-makers can assess the potential impacts of their decisions.
  • Where you are expecting a series of complex decisions, establish a suitably qualified decision group to either make the decisions, or to advise the decision-makers.
  • Make good use of checklists, to reduce the scope for errors and omissions in vital processes.

Two things hold back the forces of chaos that constantly threaten the innovative endeavours we call projects: the project manager’s ability to exert control in the project’s complex and changing environment, and the organization’s ability to impose good governance on the choices it and its project manager make.

We have professional organizations like the APM and the PMI to train and develop project managers. Where is the equivalent for sponsors and project board members?

Just now, I consulted the index of my (fourth edition of the guide to) the PMI Project Management Body of Knowledge. Between “Funding limit reconciliation” and “Government regulations” there is nothing. Governance doesn’t even merit an entry in the PMBOK. That has to be wrong.

Governance without the tools to enable institutional insight into the project data is primed for failure. The collaborative features coupled with real-time dashboard reports in ProjectManager.com enable multiple roles within an organization to gain insight into project status and performance. Try it out free with this 30-day trial.

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