Project Governance in Agile Environments

All too often project governance is associated with traditional stage-gate project methodologies and bureaucratic processes. As a result, many Agile supporters are quick to label project governance as a ‘bygone’ of an old era that has no place in the self-organising and flexible frameworks of Agile projects. But is that true? We believe project governance still has a place in Agile environments, just in slightly different forms than we have traditionally seen.

Defining good governance

The problem with this ongoing debate on whether Agile and project governance are compatible often stems from an insufficient understanding of governance. 

Even up to recently, project management literature on project governance has been mainly researched from the perspective of traditional linear-based industries and project frameworks. In that literature, project governance is often viewed as “the system by which a project is directed and controlled and held to account” (McGrath & Whitty 2015: 781), so why wouldn’t Agile projects still need and use project governance?

For many, governance has become synonymous with stage-gate processes and bureaucratic rules that flourish in traditional Waterfall settings. However, many are mistaking the mechanics of project governance with its purpose or function. While building structure and accountability is a critical feature of project governance, it is not the entirety of its function

Kujala and others (2016) explore six dimensions of project governance:

  1. Goal setting: ensuring business and other requirements and technical and organisational capabilities are consolidated within the project’s frame and objectives.
  2. Incentives: aligning project team and stakeholders’ reward and risk-sharing schemas with project targets
  3. Monitoring: applying practical tools and mechanisms to measure project performance.
  4. Coordinating: arranging project elements that guide future project actions and communicating those decisions to relevant parties
  5. Decision-making: ensuring the right people are assigned to the right roles with the right responsibilities and powers to make sure project objectives are met.
  6. Capability building: to help build mechanisms to identify necessary competencies required for projects and opportunities to further develop gaps based on ongoing or past project experiences.

Project governance is thus primarily focused on providing frameworks that help organisations make ethical, effective, and strategically aligned decisions. Project governance is not about excessive controls and bureaucratic processes. Rules for rule’s sake have no purpose.

No matter what type of project you are running – be it Agile or Waterfall or anything in between – your teams always need a way to help make better decisions, build better environments and ensure better project performance. 

Agile vs Governance: Are they incompatible?

What makes Agile different from traditional projects and their project government frameworks is their focus on value, flexible requirements, iterative structures, and self-governing qualities.

Unlike traditional project governance that is often implemented from the top-down and focuses on managing traditional project controls (time, scope, and cost), project governance in Agile occurs within the project itself and emphasises building environments that empower teams to have the freedom, authority, and capabilities to produce value for the customer.

Good governance in Agile settings is thus predominantly focused on the decision-making and capabilities-building dimensions of project governance. By focusing on how decisions are made, teams can ensure that no matter whether they agree or disagree, they can commit to the direction of the project. This plays a critical part in successful Agile projects as it empowers people to communicate openly and have healthy debates that are focused on resolving issues and generating solutions.

But just because Agile projects have a different approach and emphasis in their governance does not mean it has to reinvent the wheel of project governance. Simply brandishing traditional project governance as bygones may simply be throwing out the baby with the bathwater. 

As mentioned above, the main goal of project governance, no matter the methodology, is to fulfill the six above-mentioned dimensions. Though they overlap in dimensions, successful Agile governance requires adapting these dimensions to suit an Agile environment.

Adapting Project Governance Practices to Agile 

There is one critical guiding principle that enables successful Agile project governance – Governance should reflect the Agile manifesto values of people over process, value over documentation, collaboration over contract, and responsiveness over sticking to a plan.

Lappi and others have done extensive research on the shifts that need to be made in the six dimensions of project governance to suit Agile environments.

Goal-setting

While traditional linear project governance has a heavily front-end focus when setting goals, in Agile environments it is much more visionary and broad. However, many Agile teams often use the looser requirements as an excuse to not plan or define goals. Rather than the SMART Goals commonly championed in traditional spaces, Agile teams could benefit from applying CLEAR Goals.

CLEAR goals, standing for Collaborative, Limited, Emotional, Appreciable, and Refinable, were created by Olympic medalist and entrepreneur Adam Kreek and are a set of flexible goal-setting approaches that align better with the fast-paced environment of Agile delivery.

Agile goal-setting must also be in line with its emphasis on customer value. As a result, Agile project goals cannot be accurately defined if it does not actively make dimensions for measuring customer value, an aspect often left unaddressed in traditional project governance.

Incentives

In traditional project governance, success is measured in relation to outcomes linked to time, cost, and scope. Traditional project teams, with their stage-gate processes, are often motivated by the completion of their own individual tasks and responsibilities. However, these outcome-based incentives do not align with the iterative and collaborative structures used in Agile projects.

Success Agile project governance must emphasise motivating teams through their shared commitment and performance capability of the team as a whole. Agile projects can be influenced by peer recognition and rewards should be catered to relate to team performance over the individual. Research has shown that individual developers are motivated by empowering, flexible and trust-based approaches more than individual recognition and rewards such as personal performance bonuses.

Monitoring

Monitoring is all about tracking progress, but if the measure of success is inherently different, so will their measurements. In traditional project governance practices, monitoring is conducted periodically and is measured against pre-defined benchmarks often confined to the traditional project controls of time, cost and scope. The monitoring measures are also often set out during the early stages of project planning and are typically defined in a top-down nature.

In Agile contexts, the most common monitoring practices include sprint reviews, testing and customer validation and empirical performance metrics are decided by the delivery teams themselves. As mentioned prior, the emphasis on customer value throughout the monitoring process is critical to successful Agile project governance. Instead of the traditional periodic monitoring practices, Agile projects emphasise real-time monitoring. Team progress is displayed visually and transparently, allowing full direct visibility to senior management if necessary. 

Coordinating

Project governance coordination does not simply involve the coordination of project elements, it involves setting out the frameworks for collaboration and formalising relationships to enable projects to achieve their required outcomes. A critical part of coordination is making sure the team’s values, objectives, and beliefs on how they should coordinate their efforts are aligned.

In Agile settings, setting the right culture is one of the most critical factors for successful projects. In fact, the State of Agile report shows that conflicting culture is one of the biggest reasons why Agile projects fail. Agile is all about collaboration and by extension good agile project governance needs to facilitate knowledge sharing and limit opportunities for organisational silos to form to allow resources to be effectively coordinated.

Linked with monitoring, effective Agile project coordination is heavily dependent on having the right tools that give all parties the ability to visualise performance so they can be prompted to do the right things and collaborate effectively. 

Decision-making

Project decision-making is a combination of decision-making priorities and authority, a process project governance is all about. In traditional project governance, decisions are made primarily in accordance with formal and rigid project plans and pre-defined requirements, while Agile projects prefer using the product vision and backlogs to prioritise activities and make decisions.

Additionally, the power and authority to make decisions are also different. In traditional project governance, project managers call the shots throughout the project and escalate decisions if the decision is beyond their level of authority. In Agile settings, decisions are often made with the team, though the prioritisation of activities is dependent on the product backlog and continual engagement with the customer. This fosters open communication and discussion with a clear focus on what is most important – customer value.

While traditional project governance may have a clear chain of command in decision-making, Agile teams allocate responsibilities individually and have a more adaptive leadership approach depending on the task at hand. Leadership can sometimes become blurred in Agile teams and must be established clearly at each stage to minimise time wasted during discussions. These leaders often maintain and manage relationships between the customer and the team to make sure all the relevant requirements are being prioritised.

Capability building

The typical principles of assurance in Agile and traditional projects remain largely similar, however, their means of assessment vary. Agile projects focus on adapting their governance, assurance, and approval processes to their indicators of success that are mainly tied to customer value and team-based processes.

Instead of simply reporting and providing purely data-based reviews, Agile projects rely on observation and engagement with the delivery team to assess opportunities for improvement. Reviews also focus more on team behavior and practices over processes and documentation, aligning with the Agile value of people over process

One of the challenges of Agile projects is its dependence on highly skilled, highly collaborative, self-managing, and self-motivating team members. Agile team members are often allocated to a single product to limit any hand-over complications and to keep teams focused and centralised. 

Agile project governance is necessary, just different

Every project team wants to make better decisions and achieve their objective, no matter the methodology. Ultimately, Agile governance is not about adding more rules to a flexible framework, but about establishing the fastest route that creates the most value. Our article hopefully showed you the ways that Agile project governance is still very much relevant, just that they might look a bit different from their traditional counterparts.

Pmo365 is all about taking your project governance to the next level whether you use Agile or Waterfall or anything in between. Our PPM experts and integrative solution are always ready to adapt to your organisation’s unique needs. If you want to find out more about how we can help elevate your project governance, make sure to read more about it here or chat directly with our PPM experts to see our project governance tools in action!

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