Why Projects Fail: Part Six, Poor Project Governance

Why Projects Fail: Part Six, Poor Project Governance

Despite the many hours spent by senior executives in project governance roles very few actually know what they’re doing and what their role is

The CEO of a major brand name retailer admitted that, "Although I'm the obvious person to be the sponsor of this project, I really don't know what I'm supposed to do or how to ensure its success."

Contrary to common assumptions that "executives think they know how to govern projects", they don't. One-on-one in private most will admit to being lost and feeling vulnerable.

Many project managers will relate to the frustrations they have felt when the organization does not cooperate to facilitate the introduction of the project

In the CEO's case above, his project was critical to his business' success, indeed survival, and was progressing with mostly "green" and some "amber" rated items on the monthly steering committee report. Only when one of the business managers assigned to the project to manage training told her manager that she had been prevented by the project manager from rating her task as "red", did the warning bells sound.

But, they should have sounded far, far earlier. The project manager had never managed a project of this size and complexity. The relationship with the systems implementer had deteriorated to the point where they were ready to walk. Contractors were not renewing their contracts. The business had failed to appoint a "business project manager" and so had taken a second best IT project manager from the market who fought continuously with the overall (IT) project manager. The key business skill required to use the new system was scarce and the latest occupant of the position had no retail experience and did not know how they were going to test the system. The new system changed the way the company analyzed the market, but no one in the business understood how it worked and whether it would work, and so on.

When questioned, the steering committee knew of the clash of project managers, the dissatisfaction of the systems implementer, the lack of business skills and resources, etc, but had done nothing about it. They did not know and understand their role was to take action to ensure the project's success.

All research on why major projects fail finds that "lack of senior management support" is one of the top three contributors. The problem is that, despite the many hours spent by senior executives in project governance roles few, very few, actually know what they're doing and what their role is.

Just ask yourself (or your governance team) how many have been trained in their role. You'll rarely find one! So it is no wonder that their performance is poor.

But their role is critical to your project's success. The organization is set up not to change. Your project is set up to introduce change. You don't run the organization, the governance team does. You need them to "steer" the project and its associated change into the organization with minimum disruption.

(This latest trend to rename "steering committees" as "project control boards" misses the point of their existence and mistakenly likens them to corporate boards when they are more akin to corporate executive committees.)

Many a project manager will relate to the frustrations they have felt when the organization does not cooperate to facilitate the introduction of the project. As project manager you can influence and cajole, but not enforce or direct.

The key role of the governance team is to enable, facilitate, manage and direct (as necessary) the successful implementation of the project's changes into a prepared organization so as to maximize the benefits available. (A secondary role is to oversee, control and govern the project's operations!)

Too often, the sponsor is noted by his or her absence or lack of time to focus on the project. The steering committee seems to believe that "turning up" to meetings is 90 percent of success and are surprised when they're expected to take action themselves to ensure the project's success.

Project governance is an area more talked about than acted upon. The structures are usually in place, operational but not effective — in over 90 percent of projects.

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