What is project governance? The Association for Project Management (APM) defines it as
“Governance is the framework of authority and accountability that defines and controls the outputs, outcomes and benefits from projects, programmes and portfolios.”
Or in other words, governance is the management framework within which project decisions are made by the right people, at the right time. In practical terms highlights of governance include; a Portfolio Board (or similar named entity) with authority to approve projects to start or move through Stage Gates.
A clearly defined change request & approval process. Clear definitions of roles & responsibilities & escalation routes should also feature. Governance suggests bureaucracy and slow decision making.
An anathema to modern agile ways of working? Absolutely not if executed correctly with an eye for practical benefit. So, what are the 5 core benefits of good project governance?
1) The right projects are approved
Every organisation has limited resources, money and people. It is imperative that this resource is focused on those projects that contribute best to corporate goals, delivering the highest return on investment.
A formal approval process ensures each project idea is evaluated in the cold light of day, by suitably authorised people, against competing priorities (& other project ideas) with only the best moving forward into detail planning. Managers should not busy themselves with pet projects at the expense of the wider organisation.
2) Better scope management
The number one reason why projects fail to deliver defined benefits on time, cost & quality is scope creep or lack of scope definition.
Documenting and approving the agreed scope is critical to any organisation looking to achieve some sort of project management maturity. This is usually a scoping document, perhaps a PID (PRINCE2 term) or PMP (APM term), or whatever you want to label it.
Good governance ensures project managers, sponsors and project teams follow an agreed approach. This agreed approach includes completing appropriate project documentation and top of that list (ok, maybe second after a Business Case) is the scoping document.
Good governance ensures the appropriate people review and sign off the proposed project scope. For a local or departmental project, this could be the assigned project sponsor. For large corporate investments, this could be the Portfolio Board or several senior executives.
Without a scoping document we are likely to fail, without good governance we are at risk of scoping documents being an afterthought or unseen by appropriate decision-makers.
3. Better change control
The organisation is not static. Project scope & goals are also not static. Senior people do tend to change their minds. There are many reasons why we might need to change something on an approved project.
We might look to add scope, request more funding, or move to a revised deadline.
These significant changes should not fall to the project manager. Rather, the project manager should ensure an appropriate change control process is followed enabling decisions at the appropriate level.
If a task is going to be delayed by 5 days, then maybe the project team manages this themselves. If the go-live date is going to shift by 2 months then its probably something for review at Portfolio Board as part of good governance. The project team should capture and evaluate any requests for change.
Those with significant impact (as defined by the governance process) should then be escalated to the appropriate decision-maker(s). Perhaps the sponsor is the appropriate approved, or rejecter of the change, or perhaps it needs to be escalated further.
Good governance provides a clear change control decision-making process.
4. Stage Gates
We’ve planned the project, now let’s crack on. We’ve completed the work, now let’s close the project.
Project teams may look to move through project stages (planning, implementation, closure) with little regard for the process, after all, they just want to get to the end as quickly as possible to claim victory.
Stage gates ensure projects are reviewed formally at key points through the project journey. They ensure project teams have completed the agreed defined processes to the right standard and are correctly prepared for the next phase.
On approval, the project team is allowed through the gate into the next stage. The number of stage gates and the rigour of the approval process should reflect the scale, complexity, risk and cost of each project.
Good governance ensures projects and project teams can demonstrate they have completed each stage correctly and are ready to progress to the next.
5. Clarity of roles and responsibilities
Governance provides the framework for projects. Good governance includes clear guidance on the role of the project team, project manager, sponsor and decision-making entities such as Portfolio Board.
Good governance ensures we have a clear common understanding of roles and level of responsibility. This provides the foundation for clear escalation of risks and issues as well as proposed changes.
Clarity of who does what and the agreed approach to selecting, planning, running and closing projects is fundamental to project success in the long term. This can only happen if there is a clear governance framework.
This framework needs to be fit for purpose, not fit to burst with bureaucracy. If the right information is presented at the right time, then decision making can not only be quick, but it can also be well informed. Good governance is the key.