Category: projects

Project Governance

Project Governance

Project governance is a waste of time. That’s what I used to think. Rules for the sake of rules, and no practical point to them. Governance just gets in the way of project delivery. That’s what I thought.

And in a small company with limited oversight, and a tiny IT department with only a handful of stakeholders, it was possible to implement projects with only basic governance as long as the plans were sound, and properly communicated. And there’s the rub. Once you start to work in a larger organisation with complex reporting and many stakeholders, as well as a requirement to prove that the project has been run under proper control, it becomes patently clear that the “small company” way of doing things simply cannot work. Worse that that, these “light touch” processes are scarily dangerous in a large organisation, putting the organisation and the project at risk – and by extension, the project delivery organisation too. Yes, I am a convert to proper governance processes.

So, it I have changed my tune over the past few years, what in particular do I now do differently?

  • Documentation: In a big, geographically diverse organisation, effective communication is not possible without proper documentation. The spoken word gets lost, or mis-heard, or misinterpreted. Or forgotten. Or ignored. You need to write down what you want, what you need, what you have done, and why you did it. And make sure you are not the only person who can find the documentation!
  • Formal reporting: In a big company, the management tiers are far more extensive than in a small one. Consequently, you can’t rely on “bumping into the bosses in the corridor” to let them know how the project is going. Write it down, and pass it on.
  • Proper change management: It’s not enough to agree to a change, because if you do, and you have not kept all of the stakeholders informed, some of them won’t know about the agreement. And they will therefore continue on their merry way, in blissful ignorance. That’s bad enough if you are the instigator of the change. But what about those occasions when the change is done to you, rather than by you, and you don’t hear about it until you have wasted days or weeks of your time following the wrong track? Not a pleasant thought, so do as you would be done by!
  • Scope of work: This applies to the total scope of the project, and each person or team’s individual role within it. All too often, scope grows without control, or responsibilities are not clearly defined and “willing horses” end up agreeing to take on actions that should lie with others. Either way, good quality governance processes protect the project from uncontrolled bloat – and hence cost and time overruns – or from blame being levelled at the wrong people when things go wrong. I’m not advocating the “blame game” – far from it – but I am all in favour of protecting the innocent and ensuring that each person knows what he or she is responsible for.

So, these are just my basic reasons for using proper governance, and they make perfect sense to me, now that I have worked in teams of more than a handful of people. So, in a small company, should I ever find myself in that environment again, would I do things differently? Oh yes. Most certainly. Governance would certainly be improved, and so would a lot of the planning and control that tended to be done almost as an afterthought.

Oh dear… how the last three years in the bank have changed me!

Iain Millar, 02 December 2014



My wife and I recently visited Barcelona for a short pre-winter break. It was the first time that either of us had been there, and we really didn’t know what to expect. What we found was a delightful city: confident, vibrant, friendly, and cheerful.

There are two aspects of the city that I want to consider in this article. One is predictable: Antoni Gaudi’s famous – yet incomplete – basilica, the Sagrada Familia. This is as astonishing for its design and decoration as for the fact that it has been under construction since the 1880s and is likely to remain so for many a long year yet. The other is a section of the city called Eixample, designed in the 19th century by an architect called Ildefons Cerda, and built more or less to his design… but with some interesting deviations from the original concept.

Let’s think about the Gaudi piece first. The architect took over the design following the death of the previous architect, when the foundations had been established and the crypt was in place, beneath what would become this massive cathedral. Gaudi was given free rein to build a monument that would reflect his deep Catholic faith, and according to anything that I have read or heard about the building, every single aspect of the design was influenced by his religious beliefs. One of the visually stunning aspects of the building is that while it is relatively traditional in layout (possibly because the basic shape was fixed by the previous architect), Gaudi chose to make each facade of the building completely different. For example, the East facade represents the nativity, with organic shapes, plants, and animals carved into every available piece of stone, while the West facade is much more angular and stark, representing the final days of the life of Jesus. The contrast is profound.

The building is now a working church, although the roof was only completed in 2010, some 130 or so years after the work was started. Much has been written elsewhere about the design, the symbolism, and the complex construction of this incredible edifice. Look it up if you are interested – or even better, go to Barcelona and visit it! What I do want to say here is that this was a project like very few others. It started with a design that was fuelled by one man’s passion for his work. The breadth of that vision was breathtaking, yet he could also work at a level of detail that allowed him to direct every single aspect of the work during his life. He also inspired sufficient other people to allow the work to continue after his death, and even now, the pride and commitment shown by the people who work there, as builders or tourist guides or ticket sellers or, I dare say, clergy, is testament to the designer. How many other projects would still be under development a hundred and thirty years after inception, and how many other projects would still have the same relevance after all these generations? It is humbling to compare the average project with the grand designs of a true visionary.

The other bit of Barcelona that caught my imagination is the Eixample – literally “the Extension” in the Catalan language. This is a large part of the city designed on a regular grid system, with very specific design principles including the shape of each city block, the distribution of hospitals, schools, and churches within the grid, and the height and construction of every building. The design was intended to have one or two sides of each block left unbuilt, to allow parks and gardens to bring light and space.

Sadly, the Eixample’s design has been at least partly corrupted. The general layout has been preserved, but the gardens and parks were largely lost when landlords chose to ignore the dictat about leaving unconstructed sites. Height restrictions have also been ignored, and there are some very odd combinations of buildings sitting side-by-side. While the overall effect is very pleasant and functional, it does not have the impact that the architect originally envisioned.

So, why is it that Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia has remained absolutely true to its original concept, while the Eixample has not? At least one reason will be commercial pressures to make the city work efficiently, but I think there is another, deeper reason. The vision that the architect of the Sagrada Familia was able to create and communicate caught the attention of the people of the city, and they protected that vision, worked to maintain the integrity of what he was trying to achieve, and will continue to do so for as long as it takes to complete what many would consider a fool’s errand. On the other hand, although the architect of the Eixample was a highly capable and competent man, I suspect he did not capture the imagination of the city to allow his design to be completed without being corrupted and compromised.

Every project has to follow some sort of guiding principles. Which of these models more closely represents your projects: the one that everyone talks about, despite its shortcomings, or the one that (more or less) delivered, and is now largely forgotten? If these were the only two options, which would you prefer? And if you want the remarkable, high profile, big picture project, how will you get everyone who works with you to understand, buy into, and take the project forward according to your vision?

Oh… and one more thing… maybe Gaudi’s planning wasn’t so great, but no-one seems to care that his project is already decades late. I’m not sure what that says about the man, the city, or the project sponsors, but maybe there’s a lesson there too!

Iain Millar, 18 November 2012

Social Media as a tool

Social Media as a tool

My daughter has just spent a weekend organising a big social event that will be at the heart of her University’s “Rag Week”, along with half a dozen other students. I have to say that I was highly impressed with her commitment, her practical approach, and the amount of attention to detail that has gone into the event. If her customers – the other students who will attend the event – don’t enjoy it, it won’t be for lack of effort by the organising committee.

This project – and make no mistake, it is a reasonably sized project for a bunch of students to manage – has been run almost entirely using social media to share ideas, let each other know about progress, ask (and answer) questions, and generally make sure that everything is going as it should. There have been no communication breakdowns, no lost documents, and no gaps in the information flow. And very few phone calls, and even fewer meetings. Yet everything is being done, and the leader of the group knows exactly what stage everything has reached, what the financial picture looks like, and is confident that the deadline will be met. Let’s face it, there’s no point in being a day late with the words that will be projected onto the walls for the singalong numbers…!

I have been involved in project management for a lot of years, and I have seldom seen a better run project. There are a few reasons for this, not least of which is the fact the entire teams wants to be part of the project. However, one of the key contributing factors has been their creation of a Facebook group that they use for pretty well everything to do with the project. No matter where they are, they can be in touch through the group, using their laptops, tablets, and mobile phones. No-one else has access to the group, and they can – and do – access it at any time. Most companies would bite your hand off if you could offer them the level of commitment and effectiveness that my daughter and her friends have achieved. But what stops them? Well, I would say that one factor is that companies don’t make it easy for their employees to interact. When in the office, there may be collaboration tools and communication facilities, but no-one wants to have to log into a company’s secure area to pass on an idea that occurred to you during News at Ten. Far better to be able to use the tools that you were already using to discuss the football scores with your non-work mates, and just flip between pages on screen. And there’s the rub.

Until companies can be convinced that social media is sufficiently secure, they won’t allow employees to use these systems. And even if they can be convinced about the security, there is still the matter of trust. They need to trust their employees to use the facilities responsibly, without wasting their working time chatting with their leisure-time friends and relations. And employees, in return, need to be prepared to commit to acting responsibly, and to avoid abusing the freedom that they are being granted – and that’s not going to be a given for everyone. So there are big issues to be overcome to let most companies benefit from the facilities that already exist “out there” in consumer-land.

I have seen the way that a bunch of students, children of the communications age, have used social media, in ways that I would not have envisaged even a couple of years ago. They do it instinctively, and even then they are probably only scratching the surface of what is possible. The key, as I see it, is that they are able to work and play using the same tools, without having to really think about which they are doing at any given time. Those of us who are a little older should take a lesson from these kids, and find ways to make it possible for them to work in their unstructured, collaborative, innovative ways as they move out of student life and into working life. Because if we don’t, our competitors will, and that’s where the talent will migrate to. Clever people have been saying this for a while now, but I have now seen the future, and it is nearly here.

Iain Millar, 12 February 2012

Performances or projects?

Performances or projects?

The 2011 Edinburgh Fringe Festival is drawing to a close as I write this. If you’ve been to Edinburgh in August, you will have experienced the incredible vibrancy, lunacy, and energy that is the Fringe Festival. With thousands of shows, street theatre (even in the rain), tens of thousands of visitors, and every nook and cranny turned into a performance venue, there can be few events anywhere in the world to match it. Some people go to just a couple of shows, while I know of one person who was in the audience for one hundred and thirty five different shows – comedy, theatre, and music – during the 2011 festival. That’s commitment!

I think I went to eight or nine shows this year, including an excellent musical tribute to Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis Junior – the Rat Pack. Apart from the three leading performers, there were three backing vocalists, and at least twelve on-stage musicians. No doubt there were also several people backstage to keep everything together.

It may be obvious, but shows like this don’t just “happen”. They have to be planned, coordinated, organised, developed, rehearsed, and then presented every night for a month. The cast and crew may have come from Edinburgh, but in all probablity they did not, so someone had to arrange travel, transport, a venue, and accommodation for the cast. Publicity had to be arranged. Leaflets had to be designed and printed. Money had to be raised to get the show to Edinburgh, and to pay for the venue, and to fund the publicity, and no doubt to fund all sorts of other expenses that I can’t imagine. All of this is undertaken with no guarantee of a return on the investment: every show stands and falls on its own merits.

I reckon there are great similarities between producing a show and running a business project. I doubt whether many producers would classify themselves as project managers, but perhaps they should. Perhaps the theatre could learn from professional project managers about planning, risk management, progress monitoring, and organisation. But what about the other way round? What could the theatre teach the project manager? Well, let’s start with drive, commitment, and enthusiasm. Then we’ll move onto deadlines: you’ll never hear anyone saying “Sorry, this year’s Christmas Panto has been delayed until January because we found a few lines that didn’t work in rehearsal and had to rewrite them”! Budgetary control? – essential! Motivation? – absolutely. A common purpose? Well, it would be a bit of a problem if some of the cast thought the show should resemble a Noel Coward comedy while others were expecting something more like a Shakespearean tragedy. So yes, I would argue that the theatre could indeed teach the professional project manager a thing or two.

Should we be surprised about this? I don’t think so. The best ideas have always been shared and developed between different groups of people. The Disney organisation are experts in managing queues of people, so they teach their techniques to other industries. I’ve also heard that airlines have learned from boatbuilders about making best use of space in their first class cabins, as small boats need to make efficient use of very limited areas.

I guess that what I’m trying to say is that if we get too narrow minded about our own specialisms, if we turn up our noses at lessons learned elsewhere, or if we are simply too arrogant to recognise that we don’t always have all the answers, we will lose out and other people will take away our work.

But what I’m also saying, and what I passionately believe, is that you should never write someone off as being incapable of doing a job just because he or she has never done it before. Look behind the specific experience and try to see the capability and general abilities that the person has. You may just find a whole new talent pool to tap into!

Iain Millar, 29 August 2011

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