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project failure

The detrimental effect of poor project governance

An incredible number of project managers have never met their project’s sponsor one-on-one. They see them in the steering committee meetings or not at all. This situation is a recipe for disaster.

Firstly, a project manager needs the power and authority of the sponsor to make things happen in the business in support of the project, to get key resources released, manage the critical success factors and to address business obstructionism, for example. If you don’t work closely with your sponsor this is not going to happen, even if they say they’ll do it in the steering committee meeting.

The project manager needs the sponsor to keep him or her informed as to what is happening in the business or planned to happen, so that the project caters for future events or possibilities. Too often, projects are implemented that are already partly obsolete. The business plans may not be formalised or approved, but if they are on the horizon you need to know what they are and their potential impacts on your project. This requires regular conversations with the sponsor who can give you a heads-up on potential changes.

A sponsor announced three months out from implementation that the organisation had decided to add another six warehouses. “How long has this been planned?” he was asked. “Eighteen months,” he replied. He had sat on this knowledge for 18 months because it “had not yet been approved” and allowed the project to design a solution that would not cater for this new situation.

What success looks like

Importantly, the project manager, sponsor and steering committee all need to 100% agree on exactly what ‘success’ looks like. There are three dimensions to ‘success’:

  • the project’s measures of success
  • the governance team’s measures of success, and
  • the business management and staff’s measures of success.

All are different and all are equally valid. Unless a project meets all three sets of success measures it has not been successful. Yet, on most projects, only a subset—the project’s measures of success—are ever defined; the rest are left to chance.

Any project manager who has not agreed clear, specific, measurable success measures in all three areas with their sponsor and steering committee is setting themselves up to fail (in someone’s eyes).

A project delivered on time, slightly over budget, but to specification caused a staff increase when a decrease was promised. To the business management and staff, at least, this project was an abject failure.

And we could go on about what project managers need of their project governance teams and vice versa. This is a badly underserviced area. The project sponsor and steering committee members don’t exactly know what they should be doing; and most project managers don’t know either, leading to ineffective project governance and compromised results.

Ineffective project governance causes more project failures than ineffective project management. While tools exist to support executives in their governance roles, too few use them. Therefore, it is up to the project manager to take control and lead the governance team to ensure ‘success’ rather than just supervise ‘delivery’.

It is time to train project managers in what they need to know about project governance.

This was first published as ‘How poor project governance sets project managers up to fail‘ and has been reproduced with permission.

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Jed Simms is the founder and co-creator of Totally Optimized Projects, an internationally recognised strategy-based, business-driven approach to delivering projects. He specialises in project governance and control and value and benefits management. He is also the founding partner of consultancy Capability Management.
has written 23 articles for us.