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Governance failures are as much about people as policies

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It has been 20 years since the APM Governance Specific Interest Group (SIG) was founded, and nearly as long since the publication of the first edition of APM’s Directing Change: A guide to the governance of project management.

A lot has changed since then (as reflected in subsequent editions of the book). But like a good project or programme management office, the profession learns its keenest lessons from past failures.

That’s not to say we should react adversely to failures, nor judge the people and processes involved too harshly. Failures of governance, in particular, tend to arise from a confluence of factors — and learning the lessons is often about ensuring existing ideas about governance are properly applied, not coming up with new (and potentially onerous) regimes to ensure it.

This often results in what entrepreneur and programmer David Heinemeier Hansson has called organisational “scar tissue”: “Policies are often the result of something that once went wrong. It’s organisational scar tissue developed from a This Can Never Happen Again mandate. And it’s almost always ill-considered.”

Instead, he argues, organisations should frame failures as stories that embed lessons into their culture — not layer on more rules and structures.

Telling stories

A good example of the (often cathartic) process of story-telling is Crossrail. It opened three years behind schedule, despite seeming to have been on target for much of its development. Up until the point it became apparent that things were off kilter in 2018, the project team had been conscious of, and committed to, excellent governance.

“Governance of projects matters because there is a strong correlation between good governance and project success,” Martin Buck, Crossrail Transition and Strategy Director, told an APM Governance SIG meeting in December 2014.

He described a governance structure designed for the challenges of managing multiple stakeholders; and the benefits of formal agreements to manage the project.

In 2016, a report on Crossrail’s governance lauded “the arrangements that have stood the test of time and the clarity provided through the project agreements with respect to… risk.” It listed 19 governance lessons, including sponsor alignment through formal structures, strong non-exec oversight and advice, and integration of stakeholders.

Yet, still, something went wrong

Instead of opening in 2018, the Elizabeth Line was more than three years late. Rachel Bain, Project Director for Crossrail at the Department for Transport (DfT), was tasked with finding lessons from those intervening years — of telling the story in order to embed a better culture of governance.

“I wasn’t involved in the issues that they had in 2018 and 2019 with the project resets, but I’ve been extracting stories from the people who were,” she says.

The report she co-wrote — Governance Arrangements to Complete the Crossrail Project – was published earlier this year. (You can also read APM’s own detailed analysis of the Crossrail project, including lessons learned.)

“You need to review suitability of governance as you go along,” Bain says. “A lot of what we’ve learned from Crossrail was about switching around the people working on the project to make sure you have the right people at the right time.”

The change from the joint sponsor team to two separate sponsorship groups in 2020, for example, made a big difference. When TfL took more of the accountability for pulling the line into operation, progress accelerated.

‘Deadline at all costs’

Major Projects Association Executive Director Andy Murray reckons one of the key problems was cultural. He argues that when project teams blooded on the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games were moved across wholesale, they remained in deadline-at-all-costs mode, but the final ‘product’ had much more complex dependencies.

“It moved from being a civil engineering project to a functioning railway,” says Bain. “Changing the leadership positions to people who understand those different stages of the project, and had delivered them before, made a lot of sense.”

Bain is clear that the Crossrail lessons have relevance across sectors and project types. She boils down the 2023 recommendations to three core ideas:

  1. Adapt processes and relationships before shifting governance arrangements. Governance resets are hard. Can you tweak elsewhere more easily?
  2. Make sure changes to governance give sponsors what they need (as well as what the project needs). You don’t want to blur sponsors’ remits or hurt transparency.
  3. Joint sponsorship models can work. But even where their interests align, governance must ensure accountability and responsibility are in the right place.

“There needs to be clarity, so everyone understands each other’s interests and concerns – whether it’s between sponsors, or from sponsor to project manager,” says Bain.

Culture sits at the heart of governance – alongside project ethics, it was a big addition to the 2018 edition of Directing Change. But what Crossrail shows is that ‘culture’ covers a number of areas – communication, behaviours, relationship-building and more.

“These issues overlap; they’re often interlinked,” Bain adds. “And without trust, you can have all the governance structures you want, it’s not going to work as well as it should.”

Getting governance right isn’t always about adding new rules, creating more scar tissue. It’s often about developing good instincts and building supportive structures around the project team.


Check out our in-depth feature on governance in the winter 2023 edition of Project journal


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