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What is an underlap and overlap of responsibility in project management? When does and an underlap or overlap happen in a project? How do you avoid underlaps or overlaps of responsibility in your projects?

Our discussion this week focusses on project governance which I think in my opinion is one of the least covered and emphasized aspect in project management. Most organizations and companies emphasize and abide by their organisational charts to provide direction and control through their policies and processes but neglect project management governance. Project governance framework is based around a number of core principles in order to ensure effectiveness. Project governance is the management framework within which project decisions are made to ensure project success. I am sure that you will agree with me that many projects fail not because of technical abilities or reasons but rather poor project governance.   Failure of project governance in a project is a recipe for an overall project failure. Definitely this can form an attractive research project for post graduate students in project management.

Project governance is a critical element of any project, since the accountabilities and responsibilities associated with every project are different and depends on environment and context. Organization’s business as usual activities are laid down in their organizational governance arrangements; rarely does an equivalent governance framework exist to govern the development of its capital investments (projects). Organizational governance is most  organizations is achieved by having in place organization governance structures that guide their management functions in order to ensure smooth organizational direction and control through policies and processes to meet strategic and operational objectives. A key role in project governance is that of the project sponsor or project executive. The project sponsor has three main areas of responsibility which are to the project steering committee or project board, the project manager and the project stakeholders

Ownership and responsibility in projects: It is a vital principle in project management best practice that every part of the project should be owned, so that responsibility, delegated authority and accountability can be assigned to the owner. It is important to establish who is responsible for what in order to avoid overlaps and underlaps of responsibilities. An underlap means that no one is feels to be responsible for work items which leads to the confusion and chaos and normally decisions are not made until they become critical. Conversely an overlap means two or more managers could feel they are personally responsible which leads to confusion, contradictory orders, duplication of effort and even conflict. This is where project organization structure is required to clearly outline ownership, authority, responsibility and accountability.

You can avoid underlaps and overlaps happening in your projects by adopting best practice. For example in PRINCE2 methodology, the principle number 3. Defined roles and responsibilities and the organization theme addresses and takes care of project governance requirements. It ensures appropriate project governance by enabling and defining distinct responsibilities for directing, managing, delivering the project and clearly defining accountability at each level. Adopting and embedding good project governance early enough in the project inception is good and advantageous in that it consequently pays off by minimizing unnecessary project team meetings discussing roles and responsibilities. Project responsibility and accountability is established by delegating authority from one management level to the next by setting tolerances against six aspects of performance for the respective level of the plan:

Cost -The degree of allowable overspend or underspend against an agreed budget

●Time – The degree to which a project is allowed to deliver later or earlier than an agreed target completion date

●Quality – How much something can vary from agreed quality criteria. For example, a project to produce a new sports watch might have a target that the watch should work under water to a depth of 50 metres, with an allowable tolerance of plus or minus 5 metres

Scope – Allowable variation of the plan’s products. For example, a project might be required to deliver all of the must do, ‘mandatory’, requirements but be allowed to deliver only 50 per cent or more of it’s should do, ‘desirable’, requirements

●Benefits – The degree to which it is allowable to under-deliver or over-deliver benefits (realized or estimated). For example, the business case for a sales improvement project might have been modelled with a plus or minus 2 per cent range of increased income generation

●Risk – Limits on the plan’s aggregated risks. For example, a tolerance might be set that the cost of aggregated threats must remain less than 15 per cent of the budget and that the cost of any single threat must be no more than 10 per cent of the agreed budget.

It is also good idea to set up controls so that if those tolerances are forecast to be exceeded, they are described as being in exception and immediately escalated to the next management level for a decision on how to proceed. Putting an assurance mechanism in place so that each management level can be confident that such controls are effective.

Final thoughts: One of the advantages of using best practice in project management is that it comprises of guided roles and responsibilities, terminology and processes that people become familiar with and so clarifies project governance and facilitates team working and cross-organization cooperation. For good project governance, it is very important that the chain of accountability from any higher level (organization, portfolio or programme) to the project level is made clear. Effective governance of project management ensures that an organization’s project portfolio is aligned with the organization’s objectives, is delivered efficiently and is sustainable to ensure success.


This article was written by Dr Laban Mwansa, MSP®, PMP®, PRINCE2® Practitioner, Agile®, Laban is a consultant and trainer in project management and specifically trainer/coach in PMP®, PRINCE2® Practitioner, and PRINCE2 Agile® in Zambia, South Africa and Europe for many years. He was one of the founding members of the PMI Zambia chapter. He is also the managing partner of Betaways Innovation Systems and can be reached at: Laban.Mwansa@betaways-innovations.com, +260975280392 or WhatsApp +27817029669. He is also a professional member of PMSA and PMI-USA.

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