Project Portfolio Management

The Foundation for Good Governance: It’s All in Your Head

For minimal organizational resistance, and to address the issues governance is meant to address, begin with a thought experiment.

From the very earliest nomadic tribes to present-day multinational organizations, governance has been humanity’s way of bringing order to chaos. In the world of projects, portfolios, and the PMO, governance frameworks define how decisions are made, what activities should take place, and who is responsible for the effort to guide the functions and processes that allow us to achieve organizational goals.

But you can learn the definitions of governance from PMI and many other sources; in this article, I’d like to address what happens in practice, and why. We know that any attempt to formalize governance generally comes up against resistance – or even outright noncompliance. How can we improve our relationship with governance?

First, let’s stipulate that governance practices provide a stable foundation for the work environment in which projects and portfolios are managed.  Some workers in creative industries, including software development, may take issue even with this statement, grumbling that rule adherence impedes creativity and agility. In other cases, governance infrastructure has been blamed for an organization’s inability to respond to crises by hampering change initiatives. And of course, anything that narrows our field of vision in the area of risk and opportunity identification can create problems, so governance that is overly rulebound can limit success.

In facing change and uncertainty, it’s easy to blame “the system” for hampering our ability to respond. However, there’s also a strong case to be made that having the playing field and rules of the game defined can actually create greater freedom to engage.

Clearly, the best systems of governance allow enough freedom to be responsive to risk, change, and the occasional wildly brilliant idea, while still keeping the train on the tracks. We can get a hint by looking at the governance practices of the high-performing PMOs in a 2022 research study, The State of the PMO. Chief among these practices is the “right-sizing” of governance. What do we mean by this?

A study conducted in 2021, How We Thrived, looked back on the chaotic times early in the pandemic to identify how project management helped organizations to continue delivering on their goals and objectives. Interestingly, the high performers in that study excelled in adherence to governance practices … but paired this focus with a sensitive approach to the human needs of stakeholders. This provided us with a picture of “right-sized” governance: rules and procedures that put people first allowed these companies to not only thrive but to surpass organizational performance from other, pre-pandemic years.

Where Right-Sized Governance Begins

Those who work in IT will be familiar with the phrase “automating the cowpath,” which refers to developing software that mimics the way things were done with paper and pencil—without putting in the thought and creativity to develop new ways of working. In the governance area, something similar happens. Let’s call it fossilizing the cowpath – setting in stone the rules and procedures that describe the way we’ve always done things. You have probably had some experience with this—usually in a new work situation where you find yourself asking why? only to be met with answers like, because that’s how we do it.

This isn’t surprising, since corporate governance systems generally develop organically, piecemeal, in response to issues as they arise, rather than being designed. But what if we were to apply design thinking to governance?

The first step in this potentially revolutionary project would be to set aside time to think. There’s an increasingly large body of research on how our modern obsession with speed has damaged our ability to apply deep understanding to solving persistent problems. (For a great read on the importance of taking time to ponder life’s big questions, even in the midst of a busy work day, see Dan Pontefract’s Open to Think.) In a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, Tony Schwartz recommends embracing the core practice of asking two questions in the face of any difficult decision: “What am I not seeing here?” and “What else might be true?”

In order to get answers to these questions that are not tainted by our own confirmation bias, we must access a wider range of opinions. It’s useful to look at the United Nations’ definition of good governance, which includes that it is participatory, inclusive, responsive, and transparent. In project management parlance, this means involving as many stakeholders as possible in your thought experiment—and then actually incorporating their ideas.

To sidestep the pattern of governance developing piecemeal in response to problems as they arise, it’s wise to set aside time to think about what good governance would mean when things are going well. This is contrary to our usual way of doing business, to be sure. But under the “what else might be true?” banner, isn’t it possible that just putting out one fire after another isn’t the best way to thrive? One organizational development tool that can help with this process is Appreciative Inquiry, a way of expanding on what works instead of always just fixing what gets broken.

Every opportunity to describe a work process is an inflection point where you can bring innovation to the organization. For PMO leaders, this means rising above the old “methodology police” role to embrace new roles:

  • As a center for innovative thinking about your industry/organization
  • As a center for accurate performance information
    • Organizational performance
    • Project/program performance
    • Individual performance
  • As a change leader, knowledgeably incorporating organizational change management with project management
  • As a consultant/advocate for right-sizing processes and procedures.

Governance by design probably won’t be much like the models you have been used to seeing, and that’s good. After all, a thought experiment is capable of shifting our view of the universe in radical ways.

Latest posts by Jeannette Cabanis-Brewin (see all)

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