Leo Tolstoy

Tolstoy’s book Anna Karenina starts with “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”.

In many ways project governance follows the same laws. Good governance all looks very alike, but poor governance comes in all shapes and sizes. Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs and Steel uses the Anna Karenina principle to describe preconditions for successful domestication of animals by human populations, where if the animal meets all of the criteria for domestication, they can be domesticated, but if they fail to meet any precondition, they cannot be domesticated. His preconditions were: diet, growth rate, captive breeding, disposition, tendency to panic and social structure.

What are some of the preconditions for success in project governance?

1. Effective Project Plans
Project Planning must be good, but being good is not good enough. It not only needs to be documented, project plans need to be alive, maintained and revised as conditions change. Budgets, risks, risk management, and timeframes all change regularly during the lifecycle of a project. Without documentation and review, no governance structure can be effective.

2. Clarity of roles and responsibilities
Effective governance required clear roles and accountability. These key roles are:

  • Sponsor
  • Steering Committee membership
  • Project Manager
  • Project Control Group or Project Committee
  • Project teams

It is critical that the roles of Sponsor and Steering Committee in particular are clearly defined. It is also important to define where the Steering Committee gets its authority and the limits on that authority. Responsibility for decision-making must be clear.

3. Delegations and authorities
To operate effectively, those involved in all levels of the project governance structure need to understand their authority and delegation.

4. Monitoring
The steering committee should understand its role in monitoring the project, supporting the project and supporting effective risk management. Steering Committees need to be careful not to become active in project management through mechanisms such as Reference Committees that report to Steering Committees.

5. Risks: recording, communicating, managing and resolving
Risk management is a key purpose of project governance. Risk registers must be maintained and adapted throughout projects. Project Control Groups need authority to deal with as many risks as an organisation can effectively delegate. Risks that must be addressed by Steering Committees need to have risk management plans for endorsement and timeframes for decisions.

6. Benefits
Projects are about the delivery of outcomes, but project governance is about the delivery of benefits. Without a clear strategic understanding of the benefits to be derived from a project, outcomes and deliverables will become the default benefit. Without a clear benefit framework, decisions about changing outcomes and deliverables or ceasing projects are not possible. Without a clear benefit framework, value management processes can deteriorate into a process of cost cutting, rather than maximising value to the organisation.

7. Engagement
Project governance needs to ensure effective engagement and steering committees needs to constantly monitor engagement performance. Fully delegating engagement to project managers and project control groups, without monitoring and review, risks expediency in decision-making about engagement.