trust in good governance

Why do I have 20 people on my project board!?

Picture this scenario: you are about to start a project board meeting but more and more people keep turning up. Five minutes after the meeting should have commenced, you are racing around trying to find extra chairs. You are unable to cover the key discussion points and decisions on your agenda because the meeting is spent updating people on what has happened so far. Issues which have no place in that meeting get discussed at great length……

Uncontrollable meetings are not uncommon during change initiatives. They usually indicate low levels of trust in governance of the change. Lack of trust tends to arise in organisations which have ‘political’ cultures: high levels of autonomy in different departments; a wide distribution of personal power; and a tendency towards collective decision making. These cultures are often, but not exclusively, found in the non-profit, public and third sectors.

Lack of trust won’t help your change initiative run smoothly, so let’s have a look at why it occurs and what can be done to mitigate it.

Why do people lack trust in change initiatives?

Change is risky for organisations Рit involves doing things that have never done before. There is no guarantee that the future will be better than the present. Stakeholders may find their  professional success threatened and carefully nurtured power structures affected. These stakeholders, quite naturally, will want to know exactly what is going on. They will want to take an active part in decision making, and ensure a good outcome for themselves and their teams.

This is where trust in good governance become important. Stakeholders need appropriate and credible channels through which to engage in your change. Deprived of these they will break into your governance structures wherever they can, for example by inviting themselves to your board meetings Рor even turning up unannounced!

If this sounds familiar, you need to increase trust in your change by creating clear lines of governance, transparent decision making, and lots and lots of appropriate engagement.

3 steps to building trust in good governance and transparent decision making

1. Be very clear on the governance structures within your change initiative.

Best practice says that you should have the following roles in place for your change:

  • a change sponsor (often called a project or programme sponsor), who is the ultimate decision maker for your change.
  • a change/project board (sometimes called a steering group). This board gives advice and information to the sponsor to aid his or her decision making. A senior representative from every area involved in or affected by the change should sit on this board.

The board members are the spokespeople for their areas regarding the change. They are key to building the trust of their staff through extending the governance structures out into their local departments. An example of how to do this is is shown below:

Example of good local governance

The head of an operational department going through a major change developed the local governance structure shown in the diagram below. Key features include:

  • The head of the affected department is a member of the project board
  • Two team leaders have been delegated to work on the change, on behalf of the twelve team leaders in the department
  • Two change champions have been nominated from each of the twelve teams, to represent and support their colleagues during the change
  • All communications about the change are fed through this structure, ensuring consistency and transparency

Trust in good governance

This structure ensured that all members of the affected department were clear on who to go to if they had concerns, questions or ideas about the change. Information about the change could flow throughout the department consistently and with transparency. This minimised rumours and discontent with the change. Staff reported that they felt informed, supported and engaged during the change, and levels of trust in the decisions made during board meetings significantly increased.

2. Factor in more time for decision making

If you are trying to introduce change in a ‘political’ culture, decision making will take time because of the sheer amount of stakeholders you need to involve. Even if you successfully implement a governance structure as described above, you still need to factor in enough time for people to be consulted and board members to discuss issues with their key representatives. Your initiative may move slower by doing this but it will have far more chance of long-term success if you ensure enough time for meaningful discussion and active consultation.

3. Be consistent in using your governance structures

Once you have set up appropriate governance structures you need to ensure they are used consistently by everyone. During complex or emotional change, stakeholders will often try to circumvent formal structures by:

  • going straight to the change sponsor with their issues rather than using the agreed process
  • raising concerns which could be easily answered by accessing available information or speaking to nominated representatives
  • not getting involved with the available engagement opportunities and then complaining they are not being listened to

Providing there are no genuine reasons for circumvention, gently push your dissenting stakeholder to the appropriate channel. Make sure you encourage your sponsor and board members to do the same. Over time you should see trust in good governance increasing, and unwelcome attendance at your board meetings going down!



2 Thoughts on “Why do I have 20 people on my project board!?”

  • Nicola, as ever, a very interesting perspective and one that I’m sure is familiar to many.

    One other key aspect that also needs to be considered in my opinion is the tension existing between programme/project and change management and requires an upfront critical appointment – the sponsor.

    The fact that changing hearts and minds cannot be neatly placed on a plan as a time-bound deliverable, tends to make decision makers focus on the more tangible elements, often with binary choices and decisions. If the programme board is focused on ‘go-live by date X, within budget Y’, it is critical that the sponsor has the political authority to help maintain a balance of the programme/change tension. This authority across highly devolved and largely autonomous organisations may be very difficult to find and also comes with reputation risk for that individual.

    The correct choice of a bold, empowered and highly engaged sponsor from the outset is therefore very significant to the success of a large scale initiative and requires the senior leadership – which may in fact be a committee – to fully grasp that requirement when making that appointment.

    • Many thanks for your thoughts, Andy. You raise a couple of very interesting and pertinent points about two difficult aspects of change initiatives – the tension between project and change management, and the inherent difficulties of leading change initiatives.

      I have come across some successful project sponsors and boards in my work in business change, but have experienced far more inadequate ones. Yes, in an ideal world the sponsor should be bold, empowered and highly engaged and supported by a helpful senior leadership team or committee. In real life, however, sponsors are often torn between investing in change and bau, reluctant to take risks, overstretched, and operate with at least one eye on their own career development. They also work within opaque and complex power structures. These curtail empowerment and make it hard for us to understand the reasons for unpopular and frustrating decisions, often made at odds with logic, evidence and popular opinion.

      I often wonder why leadership is so poor when leadership research, training and development is such big business. My (admittedly unverified) theory is that this is because leadership is extremely hard to do well in ways not covered by mainstream training and development, and sometimes success is impossible. Successful leadership relies as much on circumstances and luck as on judgement. I also believe that we as business change managers have the potential to influence our leaders and get the outcomes and support we need. We can’t do much about luck, but we can impact the circumstances in which our leaders operate, and influence their judgements. It is easy to feel frustrated and powerless in the face of inadequate leadership but we often have more power to shape things than we realise. There is a lot to explore here so I think I’ll write it in a blog post rather than in this comment box, but in the meantime, please do let me know your reaction to my thoughts and lets keep the discussion going:)

      all best wishes,


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