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Separating project managers from governance decisions

Martin Vaughan
November 13, 2012

I wrote in an earlier blog about automating governance, an article very much focused on tools. As a follow-up, I thought it worth mentioning a whitepaper Core Consulting recently published on Improving Project Governance. This whitepaper coincided with an industry breakfast forum we hosted where a panel of experts debated a number of issues relating to project governance. The whitepaper looks at a recent Victorian Government Ombudsman’s report on ICT projects and we think is a great summary of the Governance recommendations from that report.

Governance, like risk, is one of those classic areas of project management where many people know the theory and can talk the talk. Unfortunately, when you look at what people are actually doing on projects, you realise few know how to put that theory into practice.

Key points made by our recent governance panel were:

  1. Applying project governance, people must be willing to say no and/or kill off projects, otherwise what’s the point?
  2. Governance on a project isn’t something you do after you start the project, putting governance in place is part of starting up a project.
  3. Governance continues throughout the project lifecycle, continually re-assessing the investment and benefits.
  4. With reference to the project manager’s role in governance, opinion varied. Ethics and accountability were key discussion points.
  5. Engaging executives who aren’t overly interested in governance is tricky: risk minimisation is the best arguement to use.
  6. Governance on projects involves people, so behaviour, incentives and consequences are important.
  7. A ‘steering committee’ shouldn’t be a ‘listening committee’.

We often say in our training that governance is about the ‘should we?’ decisions. Coming back to point 4 above, it’s an interesting question regarding the project manager’s role.

My opinion, which could well vary to others, is that the project manager might well attend a steering committee or project board meeting, but they have no vote. It is not up to them to make the critical decisions. The project manager must refer the ‘should we?’ decisions to the authorised decision makers. This is particularly difficult when the project manager has a firm opinion about what they think the right approach should be.

A mature project manager will ensure their opinion is heard, but then defer to the authorised people to make the decision. Should we initiate the project? Should we continue the project? Should we change the scope (and hence budget)? Should we go live? Should we accept and close the project ?

In this context the project manager’s role, with respect to governance is a facilitation role. They need to ensure there is an appropriate governance structure in place (e.g. PRINCE2 model), ensure responsibilities are clear and are accepted, ensure they are well informed and have all the facts plus analysis to make a decision, ensure they meet regularly and finally facilitate if necessary to ensure a decision is made.

So that’s the ‘why’ and the ‘what’ of governance. The ‘how’? That’s the tricky bit.

Author avatar
Martin Vaughan
Martin Vaughan started his career as a specialist planner/scheduler in construction before moving to defence, then into IT. He progressed through project management and program management into consulting and advisory roles. Meanwhile he maintained an interest in tools and technology, on the way building and managing small businesses and squeezing in some lecturing in IT Project Management at the University of Melbourne. He is now a director and senior consultant at Core Consulting Group.
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2 thoughts on “Separating project managers from governance decisions

  1. Hello-
    A good article and summary of the event. I agree it’s not up to the project manager to make critical project decisions. I am interested to hear where you think the role of the project sponsor is in relation to project governance and decision making versus the steering committee / Board.

  2. This post makes the same mistake the vast majority of middle and lower level managers make with respect to project management and IT management (but interestingly no other management domain).

    Governance is not and never has been a management process. Managers manage and make decisions, governors govern – in corporations this is the role of the Board of Directors. Governance is a subtle process of balance and strategy. Managers are responsible for implementing the strategy within the governance framework defined by the governing body.

    If readers don’t like this they need to read the works published by the OECD, most government legislation, the governance rules published by most stock exchanges, the APM (UK) booklet on governing projects (Directing Change – which explicitly states management bodies such as the PCB are management bodies with management responsibilities, primarily to generate value), and BS 6079:2010 to name a few authorities.

    By calling management functions ‘governance’ you damage the key role of governance and you damage the key role of management which is to make decisions and generate sustainable profit. For more see:

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