What is governance?


Governance is the framework of authority and accountability that defines and controls the outputs, outcomes and benefits from projects, programmes and portfolios.

The mechanism whereby the investing organisation exerts financial and technical control over the deployment of the work and the realisation of value.

Definition from APM Body of Knowledge 7th edition  📖

Governance empowers project professionals to execute their responsibilities by defining delegated limits of authority and establishing effective escalation routes for issues and change requests. Good governance also calls for the roles and responsibilities of the team and wider stakeholders to be clearly defined.

Governance provides confidence to the board of directors/trustees that investments in projects, programmes and portfolios are being well managed.

When governance is working well, it provides sufficient reporting and control activities to ensure that the sponsor and other senior leaders/stakeholders are kept informed of progress.

Assurance provides confidence to the governance board that the project, or wider programme or portfolio is on track to deliver the intended benefits.

  • Assurance is independent, objective and proportionate to the work.
  • Assurance is targeted where the greatest risks exist.

Governance board

A governance board is a body that provides sponsorship to a project, programme or portfolio. The board will represent financial, provider and user interests. Members of a governance board oversee deployment and make decisions through the chosen life cycle. Alternatively called steering committee, steering group, project board, programme board etc.

The sponsor plays a key role in establishing not only the structure of the board, but also its culture and working practices. Sponsors often chair governance boards

How to manage co-owned projects    PUBLICATION   

“The challenge for organisations who sponsor or deliver co-owned projects is that traditional project management frameworks and methods are based on governance structures that assume a single hierarchical route for authority and accountability.

This is rarely the case for co-owned projects, which is why organisations are rightly challenging whether their traditional governance arrangements are fit for purpose."

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Crossrail lessons in governance    BLOG   

“Governance of projects matters because there is a strong correlation between good governance and project success” said Martin Buck, Crossrail Transition and Strategy Director. 

Critical to the success of the project is the governance arrangements to enable CRL to make decisions on behalf of funders and stakeholders... 

read more

Related reading

Governance and stakeholders    BLOG   
The only reason organisations exist is to meet the needs of stakeholders. Sometimes this can be a very limited group of stakeholders such as the executive management group... read more

The relationship between project governance and project success    RESOURCE   
There are many types of assurance in the market, offered by many providers, covering many facets of delivery. Why do we need so much external assurance, have we got our priorities wrong?... read more

Project X: the biggest governance gaps in project management    BLOG   
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. .. read more

Developing the practice of governance
This research highlights the fact that good governance is the key to establishing a successful project by exploring academic literature combined with expert input from practitioners to understand what is known and where gaps in the knowledge base lie... read more

Assuring who and about what?    BLOG   
There are many types of assurance in the market, offered by many providers, covering many facets of delivery. Why do we need so much external assurance, have we got our priorities wrong?... read more

Goldilocks Governance – the story of the three bears    BLOG   
Good governance is the critical success factor in delivering successful outcomes. But how much is enough?... read more

Related reading    BLOG   

3 steps towards minimal viable governance

When asked about governance of projects, many of us think immediately of overly bureaucratic and long processes to get approvals. Most of us will be aware of projects that, despite having large governance systems in place, grind to a halt due to an unexpected issue that had been months in development. One can only question whether these governance systems are either efficient or effective.

Unfortunately, the typical response to any issues on a project is to increase the governance, often adding further delays and cost to the project to deal with this additional overhead! Let’s challenges this approach by applying minimum viable governance and focus on the purpose of governance. There are three key steps to helping us achieve this.

Before we talk about minimal viable governance let’s first define what we mean by good governance. Good governance achieves successful delivery of change and projects with certainty and control. In the newly published third edition of APM’s guide Directing Change, Principle P3 states:

‘A formal structured methodology, processes and disciplined governance arrangements, supported by appropriate ethics, cultures, policies, methods, resources and controls are applied throughout the programme and project lifecycle as designated by the organisation. Where there is deviation from corporate standards, a justification shall be agreed and documented (‘comply or explain’)’.

Whilst a generic framework is often laid down by corporate PMOs, the crucial responsibility resides with each sponsor to make the governance framework viable for their specific project – and document it (comply or explain).

If a sponsor wants to minimise governance but still have it effective, s/he should start at the apex of organisational governance and ask what they NEED in order to make quality decisions about a project/investment. What would make them get out of bed or keep them up at night? Then in turn consider the same of the next level down and so on.

In order to implement minimal viable governance a sponsor should ensure that three key factors are in place.

1. A common and shared vision for the project

The sponsor needs to build, articulate and gain buy-in from all stakeholders to a commonly understood vision of the purpose of both the project (and its context) and the governance system. All involved need to clearly understand the vision and how it applies to their role to help deliver this purpose. Part of this is ensuring that clear alignment exists between the project vision and the overall organisational strategic objectives and direction. Thus, governance decisions can be made against the bigger picture and the project is aware of the need for collaboration with stakeholders and other projects

The senior levels of the governance hierarchy need to understand the vision from all sponsors and projects to ensure coherence - are there any barriers hindering the projects but outside their direct ability to influence? What stakeholder influence does each sponsor need to deliver the overall portfolio of projects effectively?

However, whilst the senior levels of the governance hierarchy may be able to see data from multiple projects across the enterprise (the entire portfolio) it should concentrate on the overall organisational strategic direction and performance and avoid micro-managing each individual project. It cannot hope to control individual projects other than through each sponsor – the information is too complex with the portfolio governance team too distant from the day to day interactions on each project. Therefore, specific project governance actions need to be delegated to the projects themselves with the individual sponsor providing direction.

2. Tolerance of uncertainty

A sponsor needs to evolve the governance focus as the project evolves. In the early stages of a project there is more uncertainty of both the project context and delivery, so the governance needs to cater for this and understand that forecasts will be imprecise (this needs to be consistent with the risk appetite of the organisation). I recently worked with an organisation that tried to specify delivery go-live dates at the outset – and were always surprised when a different date was eventually specified as testing was coming to a conclusion.

This is best achieved through the use of tolerance levels – which get tighter as a project matures and uncertainty decreases. At the outset a tolerance of +/- 20% on timescale and cost might be prudent, whereas approaching testing/commissioning the expectation might be more like +/- 2-5%. If a project is forecast within tolerance, then reporting should be focused on dealing with exceptions only.

This approach requires trust and an understanding of failure (if things move outside tolerances). As an organisation you will have recruited and trained staff to deal with issues. Therefore, trust them to do so and hold them to account. The delivery team needs to be fully empowered to progress without interference – but have the culture to ask for help and input when things look like they may move outside tolerances (not after they have gone beyond and are reporting red!).

3. Teamwork

Governance is regularly viewed as a policing activity but to achieve minimal viable governance the sponsor needs to work as part of the project team, understanding the issues facing the project team and helping them to overcome these. Applying further bureaucracy to a struggling project is only going to increase the amount of administrative work that the project delivery team must undertake without necessarily fixing the underlying issues. Such action typically just adds further cost, delay and demotivation. Therefore, the delivery team and sponsor must work together in uncertain conditions to figure out a way through – for the higher-level benefit of the sponsor. Effective joint problem solving will help build trust, so the delivery team can raise concerns and seek rectification early.

Achieving minimal viable governance

Of course, achieving minimal viable governance will take time and effort to build up the trust and vision across the organisation. The benefit is that the reduced cost and increased delivery success of projects will be worth the effort.

The recently published second edition of APM’s Sponsoring Change guide provides more guidance and checklists to enable sponsors (and the boards that hold them to account) to improve their governance of change and projects and apply minimal viable governance.

Posted by Paul Evans

Governance of
Co-Owned Projects

Governance of Co-Owned Projects

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Directing Change,
3rd edition

Directing Change, 3rd edition

 View in bookshop

A Guide to
Integrated Assurance

A Guide to Integrated Assurance

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APM Body of Knowledge 7th edition

You can learn more about governance and oversight in the APM Body of Knowledge 7th edition.

The APM Body of Knowledge 7th edition is a foundational resource providing the concepts, functions and activities that make up professional project management. It reflects the developing profession, recognising project-based working at all levels, and across all sectors for influencers, decision makers, project professionals and their teams.

The seventh edition continues in the spirit of previous editions, collaborating with the project community to create a foundation for the successful delivery of projects, programmes and portfolios.

APM Body of Knowledge

APM Governance (SIG)

The Govenance SIG base our investigation on published governance requirements, on recognised standards and on the experience and knowledge of our members. 

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