What’s more important to the success of a project: Good governance or the right methodology?

There is a debate among well-travelled project professionals about whether it’s the methodology that delivers a successful project or the governance that keeps it on track. One thing that seasoned project teams also know is that when a project fails, it tends to start from the top.

We’re going to be a little forward here and suggest that there’s a better than average chance that a well-governed project has a higher chance of success irrespective of the methodology used. But if that is correct (and our experience suggests that it is), then why is the time spent focused on methodology so disproportionate to the time spent on developing fit-for-purpose governance?

The answer is as simple as it is somewhat controversial: Organisations generally don’t actually understand the difference between methodology and governance as they should. The result is an imbalance between the roles that methodology and governance should play.

The too-strong focus on methodology has led to the observation that the lines are becoming blurred between what is methodology vs what is governance, with many viewing them as one and the same – or at the very least, with governance as a subset of methodology.

To help re-align where the focus should be, let’s re-acquaint ourselves with what methodology is vs governance.

Methodology: The Processes

Methodology has been evolving for many years now, with different approaches including waterfall, iterative, Agile, and many others, used to guide the delivery of projects.  In its simplest terms, a methodology is a system of methods used in a particular area of study or activity. A methodology does not set out to provide solutions as much as a theoretical underpinning for the understanding of which method, set of methods or best practices can be best applied in a specific case (or cases)  to calculate a specific result (in this case, a project).

In project management, we replace the term ‘method’ with process, resulting in a set of processes that can be applied to deliver a project.

As project delivery matures, we recognise that different types of projects require a different set of processes to manage their effective delivery.  Let’s consider two projects: Building a house vs cutting edge medical research.

Building a house is, for all intents and purposes, a paint-by-numbers project. For that reason, a waterfall methodology is appropriate because the project design points to a very specific outcome. Each step is understood, can be reliably estimated, sequenced, and the expected results is known in advance.

Cutting edge medical research, on the other hand, could be focused on curing a newly found disease. It requires an entirely different approach that encompasses experimentation, revision, reflection, and renewal. In this case, an Agile approach to the quest makes considerably more sense.

These are very simple examples, but the point is that methodology should be relevant to the type of project: both sets of processes – or methods – are quite different.

Governance: Effective Oversight and Accountability

Let’s be frank: Project governance is about increasing the success rate of projects. We need to be careful about not confusing project management with project governance. In essence, governance is what governors do (i.e. a steering committee or project control group) and management is what managers do (Project management).

Governance provides a way for directors and senior management to exercise effective oversight (and accountability) to ensure that their strategies are implemented and benefits are realised. It sits above and outside of the project management domain, including methodology – not within it.

So when does the fish start to rot?

We’ve reviewed countless failing projects that were following methodology to the letter of the law, yet were failing to deliver the agreed project outcomes. As an anecdote, we actually found in one government project review that the project was following the methodology to its detriment.

In many cases, the projects weren’t failing because of the application of the methodology, but due to failures in governance. And that is when the odour of the fish starts to pervade the project. These failures more often than not start with the sponsor.

Examples of the types of poor sponsorship i.e. governance, include:

  • The Corridor Sponsor – Due to their ability as a line manager, they are given the sponsor role without understanding what is required to sponsor a project
  • The MIA Sponsor – This might be the right person to sponsor a project, however they outsource to a delegate who does not have the right experience or skillset.
  • The Poker Sponsor – The Poker Sponsor doesn’t want to share or will not share critical information.

The Ideal Sponsor

If you want to give your project the best chance for success, then you need to select your sponsors with some clear caveats:

  • Make sure the sponsor is committed, accountable, and empowered to deliver the change the project brings
  • Ensure that they are supported by fit-for-purpose advisors (Steering Committee or Project Control Group).

When you have engaged good governance it will go a long way to enable project processes to hum, irrespective of the methodology.

Governance does not need to flex; Methodology on the other hand should

Governance does not need to – nor should it – flex. It does, however, need to be appropriate. Methodology is more the ‘how do we get the job done’. It can – and should- flex.  To put it another way: Governance is governing (calling the shots) and project management is managing (implementing).

Governance may call out a process in a methodology as inappropriate and choose to change it. For example, some parts of a project may be delivered as Agile while others may be waterfall; it may be that it’s vital to hypothesise a solution rather than have detailed requirements etc.

This is not flexing governance; instead it is applying it to the situation. The key? Ensuring the right people are making well-informed decisions for the right reasons and that projects are not blindly following a methodology and expecting it to deliver the outcome.

Which road do we take?

Selecting an appropriate methodology is important. But the real challenge for your team is to make sure you have both the right sponsor and oversight (governance) from the start to limit the risk of having a rotting fish on your doorstep.

Want to talk to us about Governance vs Methodology? Contact us here or call 02 9098 6300.

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Quay Consulting is a professional services business specialising in the project landscape, transforming strategy into fit-for-purpose delivery. Meet our team ...