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What are the barriers to effective governance?

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Members of the Governance SIG recently came together to begin the first stage of what will be an ongoing conversation around the barriers to effective governance. Project, programme, portfolio management (P3M) all require some form of coherent decision-making to ensure their success. Effective governance is crucial not only to P3M, but to the wider organisational context in which these initiatives sit.

Our most recent webinar sought to glean insights from members’ experiences of the varied projects and programmes that we work on, rather than espousing the latest theory or insight from one area in particular. Collectively, we have distilled a contemporary view of the challenges faced by project professionals when enabling decision-making.

Many thanks to all those who attended the session, it was fantastic to see such a range of industries and professionals at different stages of their career.

Capability and training

Consider the diverse professional experience you have, and that of your colleagues. No two project managers are alike, and everyone joining a new organisation brings with them different approaches and behaviours.

Some organisations do not work to standardised project methodologies, or even sometimes when they do exist, they might not be followed. It’s here that it’s essential to educate and communicate the level of governance required and why it’s important to the organisation, the project and the individual.

Identifying a lack of capability for corporate governance, from the executive down to project leadership is quite an incendiary assertion. However, it’s often a fundamental flaw highlighted in lessons learned reviews (Some portfolios include an assessment of leadership capability as one of the mechanisms for prioritising investment).

Organisational culture and change

A substantial number of the barriers identified sit at what might be termed the enterprise level. For example, the culture of the organisation leading the project. In contexts of low project maturity, some organisations might even be reluctant to define their activity as a project, and hence these initiatives fly under the radar, bypassing any formal governance procedures.

Similarly, where governance is considered an overhead, it may be deprioritised if there are time or cost pressures, this is exacerbated when there is cultural resistance to governance. The webinar highlighted this as a key challenge; everyone within an organisation must understand the defined limits to their roles when making informed decisions and embed where maintaining independence is essential. In addition, if an organisational structure changes without addressing the impact on the associated project governance, this causes confusion for those involved in project teams and potentially lead to duplication of effort.

Embedding Sustainability Governance

Sustainability formed a large part of the discussion, following on from the joint SIG conference on sustainability last October. In project governance, this presents a particular challenge due to varying societal perceptions of the issue, with trade-offs needing to be made to make balanced investment and delivery decisions. Projects in different sectors and industries face into the sustainability challenge in very different ways.

Oversight of change

Building on the theme of capability and project methodologies, if an organisation does not employ ‘health checks’ or other monitoring procedures to answer the two basic questions of ‘doing the right thing?/doing things right?’ then there is little evidence to inform effective decision-making. If minimum standards are not adhered to, then there is the risk that the “lowest level of behaviour becomes the norm”.

Governance structures

Many of us will work in fairly large, complex and matrix-style organisations. This presents a challenge at the initiative level where there are too many operational governance bodies. Sometimes, in a bid to streamline bureaucracy, these existing bodies take on responsibility for project governance. It can become unclear who has the authority to do what, with respect to the individual projects. Some governance bodies may contradict each other — especially if there are multiple funding streams. Together, the existing governance structures of an organisation can make it very ambiguous for how a project is to proceed.

People: their roles and responsibilities

The entire premise of governance is dependent on the human factor of decision-making. Without the right resource to effectively maintain governance over multiple projects, the people with authority cannot make informed decisions. In smaller organisations, individuals often wear many role ‘hats’, which can compromise the separation between direct, manage and assure. Likewise, non-project professionals are often involved in project governance and may not be fully briefed on what’s expected of them, or the implication of their decisions. Where initiatives have engaged with the principles of governance, they can be undermined by lack of clarity on who the decision makers are at gate reviews, with too many opinions from a range of functions, yet the decision makers not defined.

Finally, a lot of these barriers to effective governance highlight the challenges prior to decision-making. There is an equal issue to address around effective onward governance, after decisions have been made. Enacting, adapting and sustaining appropriate decision-making on initiatives requires a collective mindset that considers governance as central to project success.

Next steps

When it’s laid out on a page like this, these barriers to effective governance might seem insurmountable. After all, these are big challenges to face into alone. The Governance SIG intends, as its next step, to return to these themes in future events — to answer the question of how we address these barriers, and better ensure effective governance is in place to support successful delivery. If you have noted any additional challenges in your P3M practice, please comment below so that we can keep the conversation going.


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  1. Obiora Ozonzeadi
    Obiora Ozonzeadi 12 March 2024, 09:52 PM

    Well done Tom Muir for facilitating the event and Katherine Ingham for capturing the output so well.