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The 40-40-20 rule for project governance

Jed Simms
January 4, 2012

When it comes to projects and project governance, being a sponsor or steering committee/project board member is not like any line management role. It is partially hands-off and partially hands-on. It has full accountability (for the delivery of the business outcomes, benefits and value) but not full control (of all of the elements involved in their delivery). It is part way between being an overseeing board member and an involved manager.

Project governance is a complex role that is certainly not intuitive. Even ex-project managers do not understand the governance role well as it is a very different way of thinking to being a project manager, just as being a board member is a different role to being a line executive. Yet, educating executives on their project governance role and how to perform it effectively is rarely done. Why?

Executives are reluctant to put their hand up for help, as they believe they should know enough, everyone else seems to be coping with the role and they appear to be muddling through no worse than anyone else. Project, program and portfolio managers are reluctant to tell executives they need to be trained in the role. So nothing happens.

But things do happen. Projects continue to fail on one or more dimensions while being ‘governed’ by otherwise competent executives. When the causes of project failure are analysed, inadequate project governance is always in the top three reasons for failure, above inadequate project management.

So, by burying our heads in the sand, we continue to allow poor project governance to destroy projects week in and week out. I often point out to governance teams that they can destroy a project’s value and intent in five minutes; whereas it can take a project team five months to achieve the same result!

However, we have found over the past 13 years that when you do teach executives about project governance, their confidence in the role increases, their performance improves and poor projects are called out by their governance teams.

But when educating executives you are not dealing with a blank canvas. Each executive will know something about project governance and, therefore, there is a danger that the training is seen to be teaching them things they already know. Hence the need for the 40-40-20 rule. This rule says:

  • We know you know 40% of what you need to know about project governance.
  • We know you think you know another 40% about project governance that may or may not be correct—this knowledge needs to be confirmed or corrected.
  • We know you don’t know 20% of what you need to know about project governance but none of us know what that 20% is.
  • Therefore, as we go through this training, you’ll hear things you already know; you’ll hear things that confirm or correct what you think you know; and you’ll be given some new insights into important dimensions of project governance.

This frames the education as building on their existing knowledge, that there is up to 60% of potential new or correcting knowledge, and allows them to hear the elements they already know without dismissing the whole training as teaching them what they already knew.

Jed Simms
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.
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