August 3, 2003 by
Filed under: Leadership, Project management 

As a project manager, one of the critical success factors to check for is that you have sufficient control over all the project variables to a point that you have a reasonable likelihood of success. There can usually be an assumption made that you are being handed a project that has the appropriate level of governance – that senior management recognizes the value of this project in the context of all that projects in the organization, that you will be given the resources required to get the job done, that there will be an effort to avoid changing the project context from under your feet. There needs to be a real stake in the project at the senior management level. Unfortunately, this is not always the case.

There may be times when, for some reason, you are handed a project that just won’t have sufficient governance. The project may be run as an internal skunkworks effort, it may be a pet project that is being run without the oversight of the senior team, or it may be being run as an ‘experiment’ (with little emphasis on any control of the project variables). Whatever the reason, it is critical that you shore up these governance gaps to the best of your ability, and that expectations are managed well enough so that you can still bring the project to completion and that you don’t end up being the fall guy. You will need to take matters into your own hands, and governance, unfortunately, becomes another one of your responsibilities.

In a properly governed project, the project manager has the ability to focus inwardly on project to deal appropriately with the internal factors to get the job done – the external issues are diligently controlled for you at a higher level. Without reasonable governance, while you will still have a project on your hands, you will have one with an extraordinary amount of external risk, and this element will warrant a great deal of your attention and diligence. To some degree, management of risk will overshadow the management of scope, resources, or quality. While all projects have some degree of risk and require ongoing visibility into the elements that could sidetrack the effort, there are some projects where the risks due to lack of governance are so extreme that they may never be mitigated to the point where you can reasonably focus on closure at all.

The primary risks you are likely to face are those that are normally covered with appropriate governance. Assumptions you have made about resource allocation are subject to change as people will be pulled to other activities. Scope change is unlikely to be reasonable constrained, and at any point the key features under development can be redefined removed or replaced without regard for impact. Project constraints such as schedule or cost will be subject to change on the whim of the organization if they have not initially been defined in the context of a reasonably governed effort. While it is always prudent to manage these factors on a project, it is critical for a project with limited governance.

Shore up these elements to the best of your ability – be sure there is clear documentation of all decisions made, particularly those that are normally managed at the senior management level. Be extremely diligent about exposing risks, assumptions and issues as high into senior management visibility as possible, and force you own emphasis on governance. As soon as there is external pressure for change of any of these risk elements, carefully assess the impact before accepting the change. While you may not be able to control whether the change is accepted, you will still have the ability to identify the impact. Expect that you will have a huge amount of volatility on your project, change management to contain risk will be your primary mode of operation, and maintaining common expectations within the team and with the rest of the organization will take significant effort.

The emphasis here is not so much CYA as it is an opportunity for organizational learning – projects without governance have a higher likelihood for failure, and to some degree you have succeed as a project manager if this lesson is learned. A project with insufficient governance is indeed a challenge – if you’ve been handed one, build in the best level of governance you can under the circumstances – and good luck! – JB


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