A project governance board or steering committee is set up at the beginning of a project to provide oversight for the project. It’s normally made up of the project sponsor, the project manager, a senior customer representative and any other leadership stakeholders, typically those who are providing resources to the project.
Governance boards meet regularly to review project progress and provide direction to the project team. If the project manager can’t resolve an issue themselves, either because doing so means acting outside of their sphere of authority, or because they simply don’t know what action to take, the board reviews options and makes a call on the next steps.
So far, so normal. Boards have been used as a project governance mechanism on projects for years, and the structure works very well. However, the very act of having a governance board for your projects gives you an advantage over businesses that don’t. That’s because of three unusual functions governance boards fulfil, which you have probably never considered before!
Function #1: To separate business as usual decision making from project oversight
We see businesses who don’t split the oversight role on projects from the work that the management team is doing as business as usual.
When you’ve already got committees set up and management frameworks in place, why would you need an additional group simply to make decisions about a project? If most of your senior execs meet regularly in other forums, surely they can use that time to add project oversight on to the agenda?
There are many issues with using existing management structures to provide project governance. For one, the groups are often less agile when it comes to decision making, because they need to wait until the scheduled meeting before they can discuss an issue.
Your normal management structure is responsible for business as usual decision making, which is as important, if not more so, than keeping projects moving forward. However, when you use the same committees and structures, project work can get pushed to the end of the agenda – and when time runs out, those decisions don’t get made at all. Project teams have to pause their work or make their best guess at what to do next while waiting for the ‘official’ position on a course of action.
There’s also the problem of accountability. Without a clear project sponsor and governance board accountable for the successful delivery of the project, it’s easy to lose ownership. Someone in the management team is taking responsibility for this project, right? Well, give them a governance board to chair and hold them accountable.
Function #2: To make decisions
One of the major functions of a project governance board is to make decisions. Having a group set up specifically to take decisions about the project means the right people are involved from the beginning.
Without clear decision-making authority on the project, other stakeholders can try to sneak into the process (often with good intentions). Stakeholder engagement activities get mixed up with consultation on decisions, and suddenly, the number people involved in overseeing the direction of the project has just exploded.
The more people you have trying to make decisions, the longer it takes. Stakeholders who think they are going to get more information about a project by being involved simply find themselves bogged down in minutiae that doesn’t relate to them.
Stakeholders have an important part to play on projects, and project managers need to spend enough time engaging them and communicating with them to ensure their views are represented adequately. Stakeholders don’t need to get involved with project governance on a day-to-day basis – they have day jobs to do!
Function #3: To rise above office politics
There are clear goals for a project, and the whole team – including the governance committee – needs to pull together to achieve those aims. There isn’t time or space for petty, negative office politics. There shouldn’t be point-scoring at this level.
Decisions and actions are taken because they are in the best interests of the organization.
When negative office politics is allowed to influence the direction of a project, you risk undermining your investment in project management tools, processes and training. You prioritized these projects for a reason, and now they are at risk.
At portfolio level, for example, a senior manager’s pet project should be considered alongside everyone else’s business cases. A clear framework for project selection means that nothing slips through because of favoritism, and the business is the winner.
Supercharge your project governance
If you don’t yet have project governance structures in place across the enterprise, look at what you can do to bring those in as quickly as possible. Drawing on external project governance expertise can get you started and operational faster than trying to go it alone.
Create project boards with the appropriate level of authority. They are the basis of your governance framework and the benefits are clear: better decision making, more repeatability, greater accountability and faster project execution. There is no silver bullet for project success, but if there was, we bet it would be governance.