Future Focus: Getting IT project governance right

Future Focus: Getting IT project governance right

While you may have to ask uncomfortable questions at times, you are not there to say ‘I told you so’ after the fact of a failed project.

It has been a few years since the last Future Focus column, which I wrote regularly for CIO magazine, so this is the first in a new series of new columns focusing on what CIOs need to get to the future state they want. This first column will highlight what I think are the key points in governing your IT projects effectively.

I once said the root of most failed IT projects is poor governance and it’s a view that I still hold, having operated in a governance capacity over a number of years.

The reason I say this is that good governance can steer a project in the right direction and can make up for an awful lot of shortfalls elsewhere in a project. Governance is all about decision-making and good decision-making can ensure that a project proceeds smoothly or gets back on the rails if things have veered off course.

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So what are the characteristics of good IT project governance?

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Firstly, it’s about having the right mandate for the board. Does the board have the necessary authority to make what might be difficult decisions? Do board members understand what their role is? I have seen boards where the members were not clear on whether or not their role was in an advisory or a decision-making capacity. A business owner or project manager with a strong personality will ride roughshod over a board like that.

Secondly, does the board have the right mix of people with the appropriate skills and experience to support and challenge the project effectively? You want a variety of appropriate viewpoints and opinions so that the board does does not descend into 'group-think' with board members agreeing too easily and risks or issues not being recognised and addressed where they need to be be.

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Firstly, it’s about having the right mandate for the board. Does the board have the necessary authority to make what might be difficult decisions?

Thirdly, do the board members have the courage to ask difficult questions and to challenge effectively where there is a need to do so? Having the skills and experience to identify areas in need of being challenged is not enough if one does not have the courage to address challenging areas. Often I have observed that a reluctance to challenge may be due to either a lack of confidence to take a stand and/or fear of upsetting a relationship with another party with whom one has to work with outside of the board room. As an independent board member I find myself often taking a lead in difficult questioning where I sense that others in the room who are not independent may be reluctant to do so for the reasons above.

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Fourthly, do board members have the political nous to challenge effectively without burning bridges? You may be right, but if you turn off people, you are unlikely to be effective. This is about playing the issue rather than the person and doing it in such a way that gets problems identified and addressed while leaving the other party with their dignity intact. You don’t want a business owner or project manager leaving a board meeting demoralised or harbouring a grudge. This is all about diplomacy and how you balance the need to address difficult areas while retaining a good working relationship.

Fifthly, you might not know exactly why, but sometimes things just don’t feel quite right with the information you as a board member have received. Maybe the documentation is ambiguous, maybe the picture being painted feels too 'rosy', maybe you feel you are being 'sold' by an overly optimistic or perhaps not entirely frank project manager.

An effective board member sometimes needs to have a 'nose' to pick up on any of these and to be able to read between the lines of what they are being told so that they can uncover what might really be going on.

Finally, an effective board member has to want to see the project succeed and needs to operate with this in mind. While you may have to ask uncomfortable questions at times, you are not there to say “I told you so” after the fact of a failed project. You are there to help a project succeed.

Read more: How is IT best governed?

Aaron Kumove ( is the managing director of Horizon Consulting. He is a former CIO at New Zealand Post and at the Ministry of Education.

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