24 April, 2017

What has Project Governance Ever Done for Us? [Ans: A Lot]

By Mike Clayton

24 April, 2017

Decision-making, Project Governance

Too often, Project Governance is seen as ‘worthy but dull’.

Project Managers can easily believe it is nothing but an annoying intrusion into their autonomy. Senior managers find it a distraction. In addition, when they need to do it, these top people usually believe it is straight forward; they don’t need anyone to tell them how to do it.

Yet Project Governance is a critical component of your project control. It protects the organization, the project, and its people alike. It provides accountability, strategic focus, and sound decision-making. Without good Project Governance, you and your project are at grave risk.

So it’s time to understand what Project Governance can do for you. And how to kick start it on your project.

What is Project Governance?

Let’s start with a video, in which I answer the question, What is Project Governance?

What has Project Governance ever Done for Us
What has Project Governance ever Done for Us

The best place to start is often with the origin of the word. Sometimes this approach can completely mislead us about present usage. But not in the case of Governance. Indeed, the origin of the word tells us a lot about the proper roles of governance in a modern project.

We get the word from the ancient Greeks. For them, the Kubernator or kybernētēs was the helmsman of their warships, triremes. But they didn’t just steer the ship. The kubernator was a highly experienced seaman, who commanded the vessel at sea. He would set the course, determine tactics, and steer the vessel.


And what better summary could I offer for the role of governance on a project?

  • Setting direction
  • Making decisions
  • Overseeing the project

What I won’t talk about in this article is the ‘who’ of project governance. On your project, these three governance roles can be fulfilled by one person, or many, working together. But good Project Governance demands all three, and we’ll look at them one at a time.


Why do projects fail?

Actually, we wrote two large articles about that question:

But often, it is for the simplest of reasons: that it is the wrong project at the wrong time. Maybe the organization is over-stretched, or the technology is not mature enough. But, for whatever detailed reason, the failure is often baked in by poor project governance. People at the top of the organization don’t properly evaluate whether this is the right project, at the right time.

Warren Bennis noted that it is a manager’s role to do things right. But the role of leaders to choose the right things to do. This is very much so in the project world, as well as in the business as usual context. But its needs a clear view of the strategic fit of each potential project. And the governance tier must select which projects the organization takes on, driven by:

  • priorities
  • risk balancing
  • resource availability
  • …and many other factors

There are, of course, tools to support this process. But good project governance is not just a blind application of tools. Remember, the Greek kubernator was highly experienced. He (it was a he) needed to show good judgement and wisdom. For us, this means considering long and short term interests of your organization. Leaders must avoid the ‘greedy trap’ of taking on one more worthy project, despite having insufficient resources to do it, lead it, or govern it properly.


In the last ten years, decision-making has been receiving the attention it deserves. Business journals are filled with articles about it. And the management sections of airport bookshops are filled with books on the subject. I recommend any project manager to read a sample of these at least. It’s vital to understand what makes a good decision, and how to set up the conditions you need, in your project. Do take a look at our articles:

The challenge we face is that we can’t simply define a good decision as the right decision.

We cannot know, at the point of making a decision, whether it will turn out to be right. But we must know whether it is a ‘good’ decision, and therefore more likely to be right. It is therefore imperative that project governance structures embed the conditions for good decision-making. So, what are these conditions?


First, you need to give each decision-maker independent access to the data. And second, ensure the data they get is in as much of a raw, unprocessed form as possible. The reason is simple: if one person processes the data, they select which data to emphasise. This introduce a bias and so does the way they analyse and present it. If each decision-maker gets the same processed data; they are all subject to the same bias.


The decision-maker or group must have the authority they need, to make and commit to their decisions. This is largely about legitimacy and status. But it’s also partly about intellectual authority. Do the decision-makers have the knowledge, experience, and expertise to make a sound decision?


You need to ensure that the process of decision-making does not embed faulty analysis and bias. Rather, design a process that will counter them. So training is vital, to help decision-makers understand how to structure their process. This includes:

  • Creating proper objectivity
  • Eliminating cognitive biases
  • Finding the best ways to balance data gathering, analysis, and exploration, against the need for timely decisions.

Project Oversight

How you structure and analyse project data also has a vital role in overseeing your project. This is about ensuring that a project is:

  • On track
  • Meeting the needs of the organization
  • Complying with rules, regulations, and procedures

There are a lot of important skills for people involved in governance to learn. But perhaps their single most important asset will be curiosity. This will lead them to deploy the two principal techniques:

  1. Questioning and listening
  2. Zooming


There is an art to asking good questions.

The people who are responsible for project governance must roll their sleeves up. They need to be prepared to take a forensic approach to uncovering the messy realities. This will be especially so at stage gates. Sponsors, boards, and review teams need to gather and test the evidence, before committing to a major project decision.

This kind of questioning can often become adversarial. This is why may gateway processes involve people external to the project. But this in turn risks leaving the project manager and their team feeling like you are under hostile scrutiny. The challenge for us all is to adopt good project governance as part of our mindset. If you can do that, you will come see this questioning – even at its most forensic – as helpful enquiry.


Questioning is of little use unless it is accompanied by high quality listening.

Yet we all know people whose habit is to ask questions to make a point. Or maybe they only do it to ask questions for which they think they know the answer. Of course, this sets them up for an argument.

You can only steer a true course if you hear all of the evidence and assess every opinion. So, having asked a question, stop thinking about the next one and start paying attention to the answer you get.


Every project manager I know has suffered one or both of two challenging behaviours from sponsors, bosses, clients, or steering groups.

  1. Behaviour number one is a dogged determination to get into the details of everything the PM is doing.
    They have a meddling disposition. And that leaves you feeling as if you have no autonomy. You aren’t in a position to lead your own project. On the other hand, this behavior does not serve the organization either. It frequently misses the big picture. And therefore, it neglects the most important strategic issues, while focussing exlusively on the immaterial details.Behaviour number two is almost the direct opposite.
  2. Detail seems irrelevant to some people. They are only interested in the big strategic picture.
    So they select to ignore, or cannot be bothered to engage with, the detail. This is all well and good when things are going well. But when you need to root out the devil… Sometimes we need our governance tier to dive into precise facts, and tiny detail. That’s where the devil is. It’s a crucial role of Project Governance to see what you, as project manager, are missing.

So, imagine the ultimate zoom lens. It can focus into detail like a microscope. Yet it can zoom out to see the whole project universe in a single view too. Most of all, this is what projects sponsors and boards need. It is a willingness to adjust to the necessary scale, along with the perception to know which is right to focus on now.

Three Project Governance Roles
Three Project Governance Roles

Project Governance Discipline

Good governance does not come easily: it takes discipline.

Every organization needs to create its own governance structures. They must:

  • Design the process
  • Allocate time and resources
  • Find the best people
  • Enforce basic procedures that will assure the quality of their work

I also believe that, to fulfill their governance roles well, people need proper training in strategy-setting, decision-making, and oversight. You may also find that you need to work actively to engage your project sponsor. If that’s the case, take a look at our article, Eight Approaches to Engage Your Project Sponsor.

But what can you do, as a project manager, to make some of this happen?

You will sometimes feel pretty low down the food chain. You certainly won’t have the clout to corral the most senior people in your organization.

Here is a short checklist of some of the most important practical steps to consider.

  • Engage support from your PMO.
  • Set up a project board training event to discuss decision-making processes and information requirements.
  • Discuss this with your sponsor.
  • Prioritise strong record keeping.
    This creates transparency and accountability. And it builds a ready source of good data to help oversight and decision-making process function robustly.
  • Establish a stage-gate process for your project.
    Do this regardless of whether your organization mandates it. But scale it so it is of appropriate size for your project. You don’t want to over-burden a small project with unnecessary bureaucracy.
  • Allocate time in your project plan for the governance process.
    And make sure everyone involved (including yourself) sets time aside for this, and to prepare thoroughly.
  • Set up criteria for important decisions at the outset of your project.
  • Create a simple requirement for every governance decision to be tested against this one criterion:
    ‘Do the decision-makers believe it to be in the best interests of their organization?’
  • Carry out scenario analyses and pre-mortem exercises.
    These will help ensure your decision-makers can assess the potential impacts of their decisions.
  • Where you are expecting a series of complex decisions, then plan for them.
    Establish a suitably qualified or trained decision group to either make the decisions, or to advise the decision-makers.
  • Make good use of checklists, to reduce the scope for errors and omissions in vital processes.

Summary: Holding back the Forces of Chaos

There are two things that hold back the forces of chaos that constantly threaten the innovative endeavours we call projects:

  1. Your ability, as project manager, to exert control in the project’s complex and changing environment
  2. The organization’s ability to impose good project governance depends on the choices it and its project manager make

We have professional organisations like the APM and the PMI to train and develop project managers.

Where is the equivalent for sponsors and project board members?

When I consulted the index of my (fourth edition of) the guide to the PMI Project Management Body of Knowledge I was surprised. Between ‘Funding limit reconciliation’ and ‘Government regulations’ there was…


Governance doesn’t seem to merit an entry in the PMBOK.

That has to be wrong.

Do you agree? Please do comment below, and I’ll respond to every comment I receive.

This article is adapted from an earlier article I wrote for ProjectManager.com.

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Mike Clayton

About the Author...

Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 14 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to ProjectManager.com and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.
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