How you frame project governance training determines the level of acceptance by executives. Here is a simple and powerful approach

The 40-40-20 Rule for Project Governance

Executives know all they need to know — at least — they think they need to convey the impression that they know all they need to know. And, to get to an executive position you need to have some sort of track record and experience.

But, when it comes to projects and project governance this model falls down. Being a Sponsor or Steering Committee/Project Board member is not like any line management role. It is partially hands off and partially hands on. It has full accountability (for the delivery of the business outcomes, benefits and value) but not full control (of all of the elements involved in their delivery). It is part way between being an overseeing board member and an involved manager.

Project governance is a complex role that is certainly not intuitive. Even experienced project managers do not understand the governance role well as it is a very different way of thinking to being a project manager — just as being a board member is a different role to being a line executive.

Executives need project governance education

Yet, educating executives on their project governance role and how to perform it effectively, is rarely done. Why?

Executives are reluctant to put their hand up for help, as they believe they should know enough. Everyone else seems to be coping with the role, so they think, and they appear to be muddling through no worse than anyone else.

Project, program and portfolio managers are reluctant to tell executives that they need to be trained in the role.

So nothing happens.

But things do happen.

Projects continue to fail (on one or more dimensions) while being ‘governed’ by otherwise competent executives. When the causes of project failure are analysed, inadequate project governance is always in the top three reasons for failure (well above inadequate project management).

So, by burying our heads in the sand we continue to allow poor project governance to destroy projects week in and week out.

I often point out to governance teams that they can destroy a project’s value and intent in 5 minutes; whereas it can take a project team 5 months to achieve the same result!

However, over the past 16 years we have found that when you do teach executives about project governance, their confidence in the role increases, their performance improves and poorly performing projects are called out by their governance teams.

But when educating executives you are not dealing with a blank canvass. Each executive will know something about project governance and, therefore, there is a danger that the education is seen to be teaching them things they already know. Hence the need for the “40-40-20 rule”.

The “40-40-20 rule” for learning about project Governance

This rule says:

  • "We know you know 40% of what you need to know about project governance.
  • We know you think you know another 40% about project governance that may or may not be correct – this knowledge needs to be completed, confirmed or corrected.
  • We know you don’t know 20% of what you need to know about project governance — but none of us know what that 20% is.

Therefore, as we go through this education and training, you’ll hear things you already know; you’ll hear things that confirm or correct what you think you know; and you’ll be given some new insights into important dimensions of project governance."

This Rule frames governance education as building on their existing knowledge, but that there is up to 60% of potential new or correcting knowledge, and allows them to hear the elements they already know without dismissing the whole education as only teaching them what they already know.

This frames the education to be ‘heard’ and not dismissed. 

Topics: Value Equation, Project Governance

Further Reading



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Revision History

First published: Simms, J. (Nov 2011) as "How To Get Executives To Accept Project Governance Training"

Updated: Chapman, A. (March 2020), Revisions and Corrections