Good governance = remaining conscious?

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Bob leaves his house at 10am to go for a walk with his dog, Patch. He needs to be back by 11am (wife’s doctor’s appointment) having also picked up groceries from the supermarket – and knowing that this timescale is tight. 

He heads off toward the park. He bumps into his chum Phil who invites him in for a ‘quick coffee’ – he accepts. Bob eventually reaches the village green and lets Patch off the lead to have a run. About time he had another holiday he muses. His mobile phone rings and he has a chat with his daughter Susan. On saying his goodbyes to Susan he is surprised that Patch is nowhere to be seen.  He strides off toward the woods to see if he can find him. After about 20 minutes he is reunited with Patch – it is now 11.30 so he heads for home at the double, only now remembering his earlier commitment.

So Bob has failed to meet his objective – he missed the 11am deadline, neither got to the park nor fetched the groceries, and lost the trust of a key stakeholder. This is exactly what happens on some projects – starting with an overambitious timescale, distracted by all sorts of bau events, failing to re-forecast and take corrective action, losing sight of the objectives, losing the trust of key stakeholders, etc.  

The failure rate of projects, and reasons that they fail, are little different now to 30 years ago - we don’t seem to learn from the lessons of past projects. 

For example the findings of the National Audit Office (NAO) report on the Universal Credit Programme: It highlighted failures of governance including; an overambitious timescale, unclear implementation strategy, inappropriate implementation framework,  lack of continuity of sponsor, lack of effective reporting and action, fortress mentality – to name a few. 

Andrew Bragg, APM CEO, regularly states “there is no such thing as a failed project, just failed governance”. 

We know that the governance of project management is a core responsibility of the board of an organisation – they sit at the apex of governance, even if they delegate certain responsibilities to an Investment Committee.

Surely the key lesson is that even if projects start on a firm footing ‘things’ change and project teams lose their way (like Bob). Good governance is about ensuring that this doesn’t happen – both in the context of the project but also the overall organisation. The board, or its delegated committee, needs to counter the tendency of project teams to “lose the plot”.

The board needs to regularly question if the portfolio of project is on course to deliver the expected benefits and strategic objectives and are in “good health” – even if they have asked the same questions a few months previously.

In short the board (or delegated body) needs to remain ‘conscious’ of the way that projects are progressing and not allow the project teams to become ‘comatose’.

Following good governance practice (such as APM’s Directing Change) provides guidance to enable this to happen – the solution is not just about process and structure but also about mindset and behaviour.

Remaining conscious is also a key attribute of a project sponsor. It’s too easy to say “I’ve got the business case and funding approved so we will finish this project” even if the context has moved against it and business benefits will not be realised. The sponsor needs to remain conscious and regularly question

  • the context / environment – is the project still viable, has anything changed to reduce the potential benefits?;
  • is the project manager and his / her team following good practice and demonstrating  control and confidence?
  • are the business users showing commitment to take the new “product” of the project and use it in the intended way?

Would we improve success for all projects in an organisation if the board were to accept the default that “every” project could and would suffer from the normal causes of failure? 

What if the board recognised that it had the responsibility to ‘remain conscious’ and by its actions enable the project teams to do likewise? 

What if boards were to take the major causes of project failure and at least question what mitigating actions are in place - or use the checklists in the APM publication of Directing Change (The NAO has concluded that it is the most comprehensive guide on governance of project management on the market)?

And what if they did that, say every 3 months (or as appropriate) making intelligent challenge of the context / strategic alignment as well as the project progress? And what if they also called for independent assurance if in doubt? And what if they were realistic about sponsor competence and insisted on providing support to sponsors (coaching or providing a ‘sponsor conscience’) where there are gaps in their competency. 

Would we then see examples of good governance and more successful projects by ensuring consciousness at all times?

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Posted by Martin Samphire on 24th Jul 2014

About the Author

Martin is Director of 3pmxl Ltd. He is an experienced project, programme and portfolio management practitioner and particularly in their application to business transformation. He is a committee member of the APM Portfolio Management SIG and Chairman of the APM SIG on Governance – he is one of the team that authored Directing Change, Co-Directing Change and Sponsoring Change.

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