I doubt I am the only project management speaker and trainer who constantly hears delegates and participants bemoan the absence of their bosses from the seminars and courses they are attending. For almost as long as I have been in project management, project governance has been like an obsession with me.
The truth is that, from time to time, I get dispirited. Delegates enjoy hearing about how their projects can be governed well. They understand the importance of sponsorship, clarity of decision-making, and effective oversight. They recognise instantly the value of registering projects and developing a balanced, business focused portfolio across the enterprise.
Risk is Rising up the Agenda
In many organisations, risk is rising up the agenda in a commendable fashion. Where groups used to find basic risk management principles revelatory, I now find them eager for more sophisticated ideas. It won’t surprise me if the fundamentals of risk management make it onto the school curriculum. Come to think of it, perhaps they should.
Risk management skills alone, however, are insufficient to protect an organisation in the absence of robust governance. As the economic crisis showed, the processes need to be embedded at all levels of the enterprise.
How can we Make it Easy?
With so much on everybody’s agenda, making change happens requires that the changes are not only valuable, but easy. For project managers to push for complex governance structures where there are none – or what there are have serious shortcomings – adds to our burden.
I propose two roles: one familiar, and one an entirely new project role. This would be flexible enough to allow the role-holder to find their own way to discharge their role, and it would require the role-holder to be sufficiently senior to make it work.
The Familiar: The Project Sponsor
Whatever the formal title, the role of sponsor is to represent the organisation and say, on its behalf, “we need this project.” Usually, the sponsor has responsibility for project decision-making and project oversight. A problem arises if the sponsor has too much commitment to a project to properly recognise its shortcomings. In other cases, nobody is prepared to fulfil the sponsor’s role, so a project manager is left without adequate supervision or decision-making.
Step 1: Make the role of Project Sponsor mandatory in your organisation
If nobody is prepared to advocate for the project, make key decisions, and oversee the project manager’s work, then do not let the project commence.
Step 2: Create the role of Custodian
Require that a new role if filled. That of corporate custodian. This role gives single-point responsibility to one person to ensure that the organisation’s best interests are served by the project. Their principal focus should be on risk and reward, and their principal tools should be inquiry and gateways.
Balancing the Project Sponsor and the Custodian Roles
The post holders should have comparable organisational authority and equal levels of training and experience. Their first act in post must be to sit down together and create an understanding of the nature of the project and therefore the appropriate risk and control environment.
With a shared understanding of the organisation’s appetite for risk on this project, the Custodian and Sponsor will be able to determine how to fulfil their responsibilities. They can set up the governance structures they each need and set up the review regime that balances the need of the Sponsor to drive things forward with the need of the Custodian to protect the business.
If the project is truly innovative or transformational, then the Custodian’s role is a subtle, last resort protection. If the project is more focused on current core activities, then the Custodian’s role will be more proactive and higher profile.
The “so what?”
The time has come to increase our focus on governance. Risk management is just one of many activities that are becoming commoditised and we are therefore potentially losing sight of what they are for. Review your governance processes and, if wanting, find easy to implement solutions to fix them.