While some organisations are just starting to set up the governance model for their projects, programmes, and portfolios, many others are on the other extreme of the spectrum and suffering from a common problem yet not much discussed: over-governance. 

If all decisions on your project are made by a committee in a never-ending round of meetings, if everyone and their dog need to be there, and it takes 6 different governance bodies for a business case to be approved…Houston, we have a problem. 

What is governance?

Let’s go a step behind though and clarify first what is meant by ‘governance’. According to the APM’s Body of Knowledge (7th edition), governance refers to ‘the framework of authority and accountability that defines and controls the outputs, outcomes and benefits from projects, programmes and portfolios. The mechanism whereby the investing organisation exerts financial and technical control over the deployment of the work and the realisation of value.’ In essence, it touches several domains within project management, from the definition of roles and responsibilities, design and appointment of project boards, stage-gate approval ‘rules of business’, escalation routes, etc. 

So how do organisations end up having too much of it and removing the joy of working on projects? 

Why does over-governance happen?

In my experience, a scenario of too much governance can be due to one or a combination of the following: 

  • An attempt to tame uncertainty and ambiguity: there are project environments that are, by nature, highly regulated and formal; others are truly wicked problems to be managed, prone to complexity and ambiguity, with many internal and external interdependencies to address. In such environments, it is a normal reaction to implement extra control measures, closer oversight, and additional scrutiny to ensure that nothing falls through the cracks. When faced with uncertainty, we want to regain control, hence, each layer of governance introduced provides us with that (false) sense of security. However, trust me, although PRINCE2® stands for Projects in Controlled Environments, it is nearly impossible to be 100% in control when it comes to the management of projects. 
  • The band-aid approach to a failing (or failed) project: I see this all the time – when a project goes south, rather than simplifying the approach, people tend to do the opposite: more fields to complete in the risk log, more frequent status reports, more governance bodies to report to, etc. Of course, this just adds pressure to an already highly-pressured team. Moreover, it represents a quick yet superficial way of addressing a problem, covering it with a band-aid rather than assessing what the real root problem is.

  • Lack of proportionality: a one-size-fits-all to project governance can be useful when organisations lack standardisation in their approach and are just starting in their journey to improve project portfolio management maturity. However, literature – and experience – tell us that there always comes a point of inflexion where one size is no longer enough and we end up with a square peg in a round hole, that is, too much or too little governance which doesn’t suit the characteristics of the project. Make no mistake: tailoring is needed and best-fit practices will serve you better over time than best practices.
  • Lack of communication: if the communication routes are poorly designed or if there are no appropriate communication mechanisms to disseminate a message and ensure that everyone that needs informing is indeed informed, then, it is natural that everyone will want to attend the project meeting, be in cc in the emails, and demand a copy of the business case. I would, at least!
  • Lack of trust/accountability: to me, this is one of the fundamental causes of over-governance. If the organisation/project does not enable a culture of trust, accountability, and empowerment, then, all types of decision-making/advisory/consultation committees are likely to be in place as redundancy layers to mitigate that gap.  

Hints and tips to tackle too much governance

Over-governance is not something that you can simply switch on or off as it tends to be rooted in the cultural DNA of the organisation. The beauty of it though is that organisational culture doesn’t just happen to us; it refers to what happens in the day-to-day and you can shape it too. So, how to minimise or at least flag the concern of over-governance? Find below a couple of hints and tips that can help: 

  • Show the high cost of low trust: when you assign a cost to something, it automatically gains a new value, thus, a great way to highlight the impact of over-governance is by putting to practice the ‘time is money’ saying: if you were to multiply the number of hours spent in each committee meeting by the (real or generic) hourly rate of participants, how much would these meetings be costing you? You are not making the most efficient use of your money, are you?
  • Measure how long does it take to make a decision: whether tracking the number of days (weeks? Months?) that it takes to get a project Brief approved since it was submitted, or the number of levels in the project pyramid structure to decide on a change request, there are several moments in the life of the project that you can use to build your case for change and complete an impact assessment – how many weeks sooner could you have gone to market if there were three less advisory committees to consult? 
  • Be clear on communication requirements and escalation routes: this is project management 101 but often overlooked as we tend to make assumptions that everyone in the project will want to receive the same type of communication, in the same way, at the same time. Actually, no. Work on your RACI matrix to confirm who needs to be consulted and who needs to be informed and don’t be afraid to ask what and how stakeholders would like to interact with the project. A comms plan is always a must-have.
  • Challenge more: often people are asked to attend meetings to generate buy-in and a sense of involvement from the start, even if they are not adding value to that meeting. Question: can they be informed in any other way? Even better: is that meeting even required or could it be an announcement on Teams? Simplify. 
  • Break down your portfolio into project tiers and define governance implications: more easily said than done, however, tailoring your approach through categorisation of upcoming activity is fundamentally based on the projects’ parameters. If a simple project, is low budget, and low risk, then it shouldn’t have the same governance requirements as a strategic, complex, high-risk project.
    Read our Changing the PMO Mindset eBook on how to do this HERE 
  • Learn to delegate, manage by exception, and be comfortable with the uncomfortable: trust me, you can’t control everything – I’ve tried. Projects operate in a VUCA world and we need to accept it, not as a laissez-faire attitude but instead with one that enables flexibility and agility. That also means trusting others more and empowering teams to self-organise within boundaries of agreed tolerance. Reinforce accountability, not control. After all, we are all adults, right? 

The PMO Perspective 

For PMO teams it can sometimes be easy to get wrapped up in governance and it is often the need for more touchpoints with projects in order that they can provide confidence in delivery.  

This need can sometimes be perceived as additional bureaucracy by the delivery teams, but considering that perception and value are both subjective, PMOs should be sensitive to how their need for information is received. 

To help with this, PMOs should consider their Stakeholders as internal Customers and take time to identify their needs, in order to design the proportional and appropriate level of governance for the organisation. 

Ensuring that the hints and tips are followed collaboratively with Customers will enable more effective Change Management and adoption of new and revised governance requirements. 

What about you? Are you facing over-governance in your projects too? Contact us if you need any further help in driving change in your organisation – we’ll be happy to assist. 

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