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The governance of project management - examples from The Magna Carta

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Posted by APM on 14th Jul 2015

On 8th July, the APM Governance SIG in conjunction with British Library’s Magna Carta exhibition held an evening focusing on the impact of the Magna Carta on how we govern projects today.

Despite the tube strikes severely affecting transport across London, there was a good turnout of APM members, British Library personnel and guests. Held at the iconic British Library site at St. Pancras in London, Richard Gibby, Head of Governance for the British Library, kicked off the event by giving us a short history of the St. Pancras site. Attendees learned that the building is as deep underground as it is tall and that it is equivalent to a 17 story office block!  

Two of the four original 1215 AD copies of the Magna Carta are on display at the St Pancras site, among other artifacts, where an exhibition is being held until 1st September to celebrate 800 years since the Barons confronted King John and demanded to define the relationship between the nation’s ruler and its citizens – and consequently laid down the foundations for national governance.

Two short illustrated videos narrated by Monty Python’s Terry Jones provided an overview of the context to the Magna Carta and its direct influence on various constitutions around the world today. This was followed by a presentation from Andy Murray, from the Governance SIG committee, comparing the purpose, clauses and evolution of the Magna Carta with the purpose, clauses and evolution of Corporate Governance and then similarly for governance of project management.

Andy explained how the sealing of the Magna Carta at Runnymede in 1215 was a Royal Charter that laid down how our nation would be governed. In today’s language the clauses in the Magna Carta set out the authority (rights) and duties (responsibilities) of these owning land, taking rents from land and living on land. It limited the degree to which the Kind (and later the state) could interfere with the lives of those they ruled over.

It was less than 200 years later in 1400 that the first form of corporate governance was defined. Again, this was by Royal Charter enabling guilds to establish enterprises to trade with the rest of the empire. A further Royal Charter in 1600 incorporated one of the first companies as we would recognize one today, the East India Company, which set out the relationship between the investors, the board of directors and those who managed the company on their behalf. To put it bluntly, the investors wanted to send ships to East India to bring back goods for trade in London, but they didn’t want to go themselves. In fact they didn’t really want to get involved in buying a ship, hiring a captain and recruiting a crew. What they did want to do though was to limit their liability to just the value of the money they had invested, ensure that the money invested was only spent on a good ship with a competent captain and crew and only bought the type of goods in which they were interested in trading.  

Therefore the authority they delegated to the board of directors defined the parameters of what they could do – and likewise the authority delegated from the Board to the captain. The forming of Limited Liability Companies gave such companies legal rights, i.e. companies can be treated as an individual, and therefore some of the concepts of the liberty of individuals enshrined in the Magna Carta are reflected in early company law and in company law today.

We don’t have a Royal Charter for project management today - yet, however, the Privy Council is considering granting chartered status to the APM in the same way that other professions have chartered status. Today, the nearest we have to a ‘charter’ for  governance of project management is reflected in the 13 principles in the APM guide, “Directing Change”. Andy explained how the 13 principles describe the relationship between Corporate Governance and the governance of project management and projects. He also highlighted that although it’s been some time since the guide was published there are still  many organisations whose corporate governance arrangements  significantly lack how they govern change – they tend to focus almost exclusively on how they govern ‘business as usual’.

Next up was Martin Samphire, the Chair of the APM Governance SIG, who reinforced that recent research has concluded that good governance is the critical success factor in projects. He then asked the attendees to consider whether we need a Royal Charter for governance of project management and if so, what would it contain?

The attendees addressed this question by considering, in groups, whether any of the 63 clauses in the Magna Carta could be applied to governance of project management. Other groups considered whether anything was missing from the current 13 principles in Directing Change or do any of them need changing in light of Magna Carta?  

The groups had English translation from the original Latin manuscript, but it still took some imagination to convert the clauses from their medieval context.  

Some notable clauses were:

Magna Carta ClausePossible application in project management
Clause 23, which limited the right of feudal lords to demand assistance in building bridges across rivers.Could we consider ‘feudal lords’ as operational departments demanding assistance with BAU activities from teams/resources who are meant to work on projects?  Can we limit their rights?  Does BAU work take precedence over project work?
Clause 28 which determined that a royal officer requisitioning goods must offer immediate payment to their owner.
Clause 30 which prevented royal officials from requisitioning horses or carts without the owner's consent.
Clause 31 which prevented royal officials from requisitioning timber without the owner's consent.
It’s a fact of life that a project is competing not only with other projects but with BAU activities in the organisation.  So it’s understandable that its resources or budgets may get requisitioned for something that is considered more important. But, could the charter define that the project needs to consent, or that the project is compensated?  Could compensation be in the form of more time, less scope or perhaps even that the Project Sponsor, Project Manager and Project Team are no longer judged on the original performance measures of the project?
Clause 35 which ordered the establishment of standard measures for wine, ale, corn, and cloth.Could we have standard measures for project costs, time, performance and benefits?
Clause 38 which stated that no-one should be put on trial based solely on the unsupported word of a royal official.How about, “No project should be started/stopped based solely on the unsupported word of a chief executive”?
That would get rid of pet projects!

Inspired by these analogies the groups thought that the principles in Directing Change should be enhanced to cover authority and duties relating to change control and also more emphasis around duties relating to realising benefits at/after project closure - particularly early closure.

The group work was collected up and will be used as input to a future GovSIG session on refreshing Directing Change.

Richard Gibby, the Head of Governance at the British Library, then rounded off the evening by explaining how the British Library governs its projects. He put this into context of the corporate governance of the British Library, going back to the Act of Parliament in 1973 that incorporated the library.

The Act defines how the library is governed in terms of the size and composition of the Board, how board members are appointed and the authority of the board and the limits to which those authorities can be delegated. The way the British Library governs its projects has evolved over time as they learned how to prioritise competing projects with limited resources and mixed funding (approximately 80% from the tax payer and 20% from donors and commercial activities). The library has published ‘Living Knowledge’ which defines the vision for the library and the six drivers (lenses) that help it prioritise its work. Richard gave examples of two large programmes and how they aligned to the 6 ‘lenses’ and lessons from how they were set up in terms of governance and management.  The programmes were quite contrasting in that one was a vision-led programme with a clear end point and another was a collection of highly inter-dependent projects that benefited from being managed as a set.  

There was an interesting debate regarding the need for the SRO (sponsor) to be very senior to give the programme the leadership support it needs and the capacity of them to interact with the programme manager. The library trialled having an intermediate role (Programme Head) in between these two layers, with mixed success. The debate could have carried on for much longer, but with the tube strike in full swing the event was rounded up on time so that those braving the transport disruptions could make their way home – and enjoy a nice bottle of Olde English Mead kindly gifted by the British Library.

Many thanks to the British Library for hosting the event and Caroline Coulthard from British Library’s Portfolio Office for her organisational skills and hard work in setting it up.


The speakers

  • Richard Gibby – Head of Governance, British Library
  • Martin Samphire – Director, 3PMXL (and Chair of the APM Governance SIG)
  • Andy Murray  - Director, Outperform UK Ltd (and Deputy-Chair of the APM Governance SIG


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