Program governance: your questions answered

The term ‘governance’ can be defined in more than one way – it means different things to different people, which is perhaps why it causes such confusion among senior management teams.

More generally, it’s used in a corporate sense, but then you have Program Governance too.

Understanding the differences between the two is essential if you’re to plan and run a program effectively. There’s likely to be plenty of other questions you need answering too – but hopefully they’re covered in our list below.


How do Program and Corporate Governance differ?

Corporate Governance refers to the processes that together form a company’s operation. These processes are prescribed and tend to be continually improved over time by governing bodies and shareholders – all with the goal of getting the best possible results for the business.

The importance of Corporate Governance is not questioned and is widely accepted. It’s also taken seriously by the vast majority of organisations.

Program Governance covers a similar mix of processes and mechanisms, but refers specifically to program development and execution. It defines the program’s objectives, as well as the operating processes and decision-making techniques that will be used throughout.

Its goal is simple: to make sure everything works smoothly, that the team operates as efficiently as possible and, above all, that the final outcome meets the requirements laid out by the Board early on.


Does Program Governance work?

Program governance doesn’t just ‘work’, it’s essential – most teams will agree with that. But it won’t work on its own. The fact that more than two-thirds of business-critical programs fail to meet their objectives suggests it isn’t being done properly at present.

Despite drastic shifts in companies’ needs and environments, the typical approach to Program Governance has seen little change in the past 50 years. In fact, most companies don’t even look at the governance models they’ve put together, at great expense, let alone update them.


Why do so many programs collapse?

The fact that two-thirds of business-critical programs end in failure, should certainly be enough to shock. There are many reasons for it, too.

You’ll find the majority of program failure post-mortems point to three or four major (but persistent) causes. These are:

Unclear program objectives: What’s the end goal? What do you want to achieve? These questions must be answered early.

Unrealistic plans: When you know what you want to achieve, you must work out how you’ll get there. Is this actually do-able?

Interdependencies weren’t managed properly: Does everyone know their responsibilities right across the program? What to do – when to do it? Is the team set up correctly?

The strategy was let down by poor execution: You put everything into planning but organisation was poor throughout the execution.

None of these are particularly surprising, but there’s one key reason that always stands out: The senior management’s commitment to the program was lacking. They didn’t take enough interest, and they didn’t allocate anything like enough resources. This is probably not malicious; it’s a by-product of not taking enough visible action to prioritise critical initiatives.

Ironically, further down the line it’ll be these people hit hardest by the high costs of straightening things out; that is if the project isn’t abandoned completely.

All of these issues can be fixed, or at least eased, with the help of better Program Governance – something businesses clearly aren’t giving enough attention to.


What is the program governance team’s role?

It’s a common view that the program governance team’s biggest responsibility is to ask – and help answer – the right questions. Questions like those mentioned above, and many more. They should make sure all of the necessary information is in place, so that the final outcome is as expected.

There’s a problem, though. And it’s a big one. Most governance teams lack the necessary knowledge and skill sets – they don’t know what questions to ask, let alone how to answer them afterwards.

How many governance teams would actually know what a credible program plan looked like, for example? Would they understand the resourcing implications of a plan, by skill domain?

Could they see past soothing-but-irrelevant notes supporting Red-Amber-Green ‘traffic light’ program reports? Could they truly measure program progress, as opposed to ‘hoped-for’ progress?

Until they can do that, program governance simply can’t be effective. They lack the knowledge needed to identify critical gaps in the execution strategy, meaning they let the rest of the team down. And before you ask, the Program Sponsor and Program Director can only do so much – no matter how good they are.


How do the common mistakes happen?

Most companies do a decent job choosing a Sponsor and Director, and there will always be a few on the team – and beyond – who are fully on board with the program.

For every passionate executive, however, there are some team members who ‘forget’ their roles the second they leave a meeting and go back to their ‘normal’ tasks. They also undermine the project with careless comments that diminish the program’s importance. Some even criticise colleagues behind closed doors. These kinds of behaviours are enough to jeopardise the success of any program.

There’s a tendency as well for companies to pick and choose which aspects of Program Governance they want to pay attention to. They mistake effective organisation for bureaucracy, and decide they’d rather just ‘get on with it’. They essentially take what they think is a “light touch” route, only to find later there’s a heavy price to pay for this.

Streamlining governance is another concern that so often gets overlooked. With management desperate to be inclusive, it’s so easy for the team to get padded out with non-essential members. In reality, though, these people aren’t fixed on the same goals – they’re more occupied with looking after their own interests.


Surely this is the Program Director’s fault?

Sometimes, but not as often as you’d think.

The root cause of most program failures, as we touched on before, is shoddy governance. The team ignores common program issues until they mount up and become obvious. This is a problem that will exist for as long as companies refuse to take Program Governance seriously. It’ll be the same routine of failure over and over.


So what’s the solution?

Well, the first step is to give governance the attention it deserves and requires, but beyond that it’s down to the governance team you put together.

Finding a strong balance of skills and capabilities is crucial. Each member must understand their role and also be skilled and knowledgeable enough to ask the right questions. It may take some education and coaching, but the results are worth it.

Also, the governance process you use must be tailored to the program in question. As useful as it would be, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. Organisation is essential, but there’s no need to overdo it with pointless bureaucracy. You must be agile when the situation requires it.

If this has all been done well, the Program Director’s job is made much simpler – they just need to get the right information to the governance team so they can discuss key issues, ask ‘informed’ questions and make crisp decisions the program team can then act on.

The end message is simple: you put so much effort into developing your plan, why not match it when it comes to building a governance system and team? Execution will be so much simpler if you do.