Program Governance

(How big is the tree?)

I often get asked how complex should our program management governance structure be?

I remember one client (for whom we ended up designing their entire program governance system) who wasn’t happy with the notion of a scalable governance structure, rewind that he wasn’t happy in a flexible approach to project delivery.  “A program is a program” his favourite words and by such logic he believed (well I think he paid for someone else’s beliefs) that all things should be managed in the same way.

So whether it was buying a photocopier or a billion plus civil project they would go through the same internal approvals, review, monitoring and reporting conditions.  To the point that I sat there and calculated the time and effort required just to follow the process on the procurement of a $7000 copier and it equated to a little over $25,000 in lost time- oh and plus the $7000 purchase price.   Staff motivation was also as low as the value proposition of many of their low cost program.

In one meeting, the penny dropped for him and I started randomly explaining a program as a tree, with the governance being its root system.  Honestly I was winging it at this point and trying to come up with a simple analogy he could share with the board.

It worked we got approval to go ahead and developed a flexible fit for purpose structure which is now being used in the execution of billion dollar projects and small scale procurement and it all started with me saying: “well how big is your tree”?

So let’s explain-

program treeA general rule in nature is that there are 3 main factors which decide the size of a tree’s root system;

  1. The type of the tree,
  2. The environment it is in, and
  3. The size of the tree

In a sense program governance can be viewed in a similar fashion.

Program governance structures are roots which keep our programs, stable, fed, protect them from the environment (both internal and external) and guide the direction for growth.  But how big do these roots need to be?

Is a simple governance structure more effective than a larger one?  I’m sure you are doing a pros and cons analysis in your head at the moment, but let’s track back to determine the unique nature of your program first; question number one: Ask yourself:

program governance 1What type of Tree?

Some trees need a lot more love than others (and I’m not talking in the sense of dendrophilia – please don’t look up that term).  Some trees will just grow, they will find water, sun and nutrients and do their thing.  Others need plenty of direction; they need to be put in the right place, at the right time and if poor decisions are made (like not watering when you go on holidays) they die.

Here we are talking about your program’s ability to survive.  A strong program is self-sufficient, just like the low maintenance tree it will just do its thing. By contrast a weaker program needs constant monitoring, review and care- if left alone for too long it will not survive.

So think of your program and answer what type of tree do you have?

Ok question number 2:

If planted in the wrong environment even the strongest tree won’t survive. The environment is referenced to the conditions in which your program operates; this is all encompassing but includes anything that has the potential to impact on your program;

Internal Environment: How stable is the organisation?  What is the degree of alignment between the program and the organisation’s vision? How much internal commitment and support is there for your program?

External Environment: What is the nature of your industry; the economic, socio-cultural, political, technological?  Is your program delivering benefits which are current?

Basically determining the environment is asking the question: am I planting the right tree for this environment?

And finally question 3: How big is your tree?

program governance  sizeWhat is the nature of your program?  Is it a pretty safe and small internal program which let’s be honest here if it failed would cause nothing more than your bruised ego? Or is it a high risk program whose failure could spell the end for your organisation?

This doesn’t have to be a function of cost, (but often it is) we are looking at the type of program and the associated risk.  To be consistent with my analogy; a high risk program would be considered a big tree; let’s go with a great redwood.  Conversely a low risk program could be seen as a small plant; aka a tomato, and it doesn’t mean it’s not important- it’s all relative: but you would probably notice the impact more if a 10-meter tree fell down than a 10 cm tomato plant.

So with that think of your program and considering everything else within your organisation, identify: how big is your tree and if your program fell in the forest would it make a sound?

Now that you have the basics of botany behind you (never claim that after reading this) we can move on.

Governance is a double edged sword, the more the layers yes in some ways the more the protection, but also the greater the expense of time in decision making, greater the lag in approvals and often it irradiates the flexibility and agility of the program in responding to change.

If you described your program as a fragile, but tall tree in a harsh environment well it makes sense to protect it with layers of governance.  You would probably have several approval gateways, layers of decision making, consultation, reviews, quality systems, great big templates with important people’s names on them.

However, if you described your program the other way, well it may be of greater benefit to have a scaled down approach of streamlined policy and process, decision and delegation.

Program Governance should be flexible and PMI’s standards for Program Management (3rd Edition) labels governance as the practices and processes conducted to ensure effective and consistent program delivery, achieved through review and decision making by a body- well that’s the simple version.

But it is congruent to my argument, find a balance and aim for governance which is going to be the most effective in its pursuit.

So to build a forest of knowledge (I promise never to use tree analogies again) let us know the type of program you are implementing and the associated governance structures which exist for program delivery, and does it work?


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