Project X: the biggest governance gaps in project management

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Developing the Practice of Governance is the Association for Project Management’s contribution to the Infrastructure and Projects Authority’s Project X to identify the real-world issues that affect projects and programmes. The collaborative research project outlined several areas in which project managers could improve governance on their projects.

“Large projects operate in complex environments and complexity is important and must be managed through the use of appropriate tools, known as problem structuring methods (PSMs),” states the report. “A tool that is particularly applicable to organisational evaluation is the viable system model (VSM) and its application to a governance system is described more fully in this report.”

The report identifies several gaps in the knowledge base for project managers when it comes to governance on large or public sector projects. These are the main points.

1. Complexity

Project managers are struggling to understand and measure the complexity of their projects. It raises a number of questions for the profession to answer. “How can the level of complexity in a project be understood?”

2. Assurance

A good assurance system should be aligned to a project’s governance system and tuned to the objectives of the project, and project managers on public sector needs to work out how to improve and maintain that alignment. The iron triangle (time, cost and quality) is not applicable for projects that operate in complex and dynamic environments, according to the report, so the profession must determine the metrics, systems and approaches are less open to deception.

3. The informal phase

We need evidence of best practice when establishing a project. “What level of review should be applied to the decisions and activities in the informal phase, before the project is allowed to enter a formal phase?”

4. Avoiding excess optimism

As large projects often face considerable political resistance early in their life cycle, it’s hard for project managers to remain realistic. Professor Bent Flyvbjerg of Saïd Business School found that project promoters believe that delusion about project cost is necessary to get major projects started. Project promoters have a vested interest in underestimating costs and environmental impacts, and overestimating demand and development effects, according to Flyvbjerg.

“What approaches are most likely to yield objective and useful data on which to base decisions about the future of major projects?”

5. Benefits realisation management and maturity models

The profession must identify which maturity assessments are the most beneficial to running a project. “What benefits may be delivered from maturity models for the types of large-scale activity that are being delivered through the UK major projects portfolio?”

Further reading:

Image: apixelstudio/

Sue Kershaw

Posted by Sue Kershaw on 27th Jan 2020

About the Author

Sue Kershaw became the first female president of APM in 2019. A well-respected international and high-profile project management practitioner and leader, Sue holds the roles of managing director, transportation at Costain. She is also a member of the Mayor of London’s Infrastructure Advisory Panel.

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