Governance committees that actually work

Governance committees that actually work

Try to keep your meetings simple, says Corinne Forrest

Some project governance committees really do work. Ok, stop laughing.

I’ve seen some outstandingly effective committees that contribute to organisational value and make everyone’s life more productive. No really, quit laughing now.

Now, I’m depressingly aware that some jaded executives are right now glancing up from their iPads and snorting, but I have four words for you: Keep it simple silly. Sound familiar?

Picture these scenarios. A government IT department creates project steering committees and appoints project sponsors of appropriate heft. These committees meet sporadically and have no agreed decision-making authority.

In the meantime, the CIO, the head of IT services, the enterprise project management office, the heads of corporate services and applications development meet once a week outside of the project steering committee.

They all have a say in what each project should deliver and how the project team should deliver it.

A major mining company with $2 billion in its project portfolio had weekly three hour meetings, attended by the CIO and a cast of other executives and project staff, to discuss the health of every major program in the portfolio. The only people not invited to this discussion were the program managers.

The MD of a national logistics company made major capital investments based on the war stories of its most influential executive.

This executive would weave his stories of ‘glorious enhanced prestige’, ‘leveraging the good’ and ‘mission criticality’ to his fellow (infuriated) executives and, astonishingly, the managing director would hand over the capital – with no objective assessment of value, strategic alignment or risk.

An insurance company does even better. It has a spread sheet of 150 lines that listed all its ‘decision-making’ committees for a portfolio of 110 projects. I burned it, not literally, and started over with a structure of 24.

Many executives and senior managers complain that they spend most of the day in committee meetings. One told me that his ‘real’ day started at 4pm when he could finally get to his day job.

Committees can be the bane of an executive’s life; they eat up countless hours and, as many executives report, some don’t accomplish much. And they proliferate like cane toads in the wet.

Even though most of us would rather have something fight its way out of our intestines and swiggle across the table than go to a meeting, the rub lies in that governance committees are essential.

Successful committees rely on several central principles, which are described below.

Governance roles should sit within existing frameworks

Often the problem with project governance approaches is that they live in isolation of the corporate governance framework.

In successful companies, certain core project portfolio management (PPM) processes – such as managing the project investment cycle or implementing change – dovetail with strategic and operational planning functions and happen within a cohesive and integrated governance framework.

These companies rely on tightly scripted meetings, objective analyses and decision frameworks to unite executives around a common vision.

Consequently, they roll out failsafe, architecturally-aligned projects which use the optimal amount of resources and deliver value.

Although committee meetings and decision frameworks are absolutely essential for effective project investment and delivery, they’re a poor stand-in for an integrated approach to governance.

Roles and decision-making rights need be well defined

This is the easiest way to roll out effective project governance. Making good decisions and making them happen quickly by the appropriate authority attached to the correct role are the hallmarks of high-performing project environments.

The most important step in streamlining project governance is assigning clear roles and responsibilities, defining who needs to agree, who should have input, who has ultimate responsibility for making decisions, and who is accountable for follow-through.

By highly prescribing these roles and rights, committees make decisions faster and ensure that they are executed. Any decision outside of the authority of the chair, sponsor or committee is escalated to a higher entity, specified within the governance architecture.

Keep it simple, necessary, and mandatory

A well-functioning PPM governance committee system requires eternal vigilance. They’re successful if they adhere to a few simple rules.

First, identify the function within the governance framework the committee should perform – investment decisions should be made by an investment committee, execution decisions by a project or program board, and portfolio delivery issues governed by a portfolio group.

Once established, give it a highly defined charter with ironclad rules with members selected only if they play a functional, advisory or decision-making role. This approach goes a long way towards eliminating opinion givers or interested parties.

If members excuse themselves too often, caution them or replace them. In the government IT department, some program boards had not met for 6 months because the chair people were too busy.

The executive team picked up the slack for the program boards and made decisions on the boards’ behalf while the original program chairs retained the right to veto any executive decision they didn’t like. This was clearly a significant failure of governance.

Assign people to committees carefully

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The make-up of any committee obviously has to match the committee’s requirements: the right skills, seniority levels and representation from relevant functions or departments.

Define roles based on the project’s requirements and prescribe what those roles will do with a chair to whom all decision-making rights are devolved. Some research suggests that there exists a best number of committee members.

I don’t agree. The ideal number of committee members should be determined by the function the committee performs and what decisions must be made and by whom.

Meet by exception, people are busy

Committees can’t function when their members are spread too thinly. Meet by exception when a project, program or portfolio is operating outside of its delegation or if something important is happening.

Put strict limits on the number of project boards, investment and IT committees on which executives and senior managers can serve. Spell out expectations about how much time the committees will require.

It’s often helpful to have term limits on individual committee service based on the requirements of the project.

Give good chair

At the meetings themselves, the chair ensures good discipline, sticking to the agenda and keeping to time. The chair is often a project sponsor so it’s essential that he or she is trained in both sponsorship and chairing duties. Good chairs keep meetings centred on decisions and action and facilitate the decision-making mechanism.

The chair ensures that matters discussed and decisions made are strictly within the authority of the committee. Finally, the secretary should record decisions, communicate the relevant action items and time frames to all concerned and ensure follow-up.

Some committee meetings quickly degenerate into talk fests and socialising. Even those that ostensibly focus on business matters can get on the wrong track.

At the logistics company, I found that its executive committee devoted 50 per cent of its time to informing members of new developments and only 10 per cent considering investment and transformation decisions.

After implementing some strict committee guidelines, the executive had the space to solve higher-value problems, devolving detailed analyses and decision-making of how to implement its massive transformation program to “lower” governance committees.

A well-functioning governance committee requires eternal vigilance but it shouldn’t be difficult.

Aligning its structure, processes, culture, appointing the right chair and limiting committee members to only those can make a contribution, means quick, effective decision-making and members that feel they’re actually getting something done. It’s no more involved than making the process routine.

Corinne Forrest is head of PPM strategy at PPM Global Consulting.

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