IPMA International Project Management Association
28 August 2017 / 6:27

Hard vs Soft Governance: Is it ‘Walking on the tight rope’ either way?

It doesn’t really matter whether the glass is half full or half empty; at least there is some water in it.

Perhaps in the same vein, it may not matter if the people have preference for a soft governance or hard governance to management of their project; as long as there is some governance in it.

This is because, projects are inherently governance-prone courtesy their very nature of being the systematic-beings. Though defined in a variety of ways, we choose one simple definition that says project governance is “the structure through which the objectives of the project are set, as well as the means to attain these objectives and to monitor the performance against these objectives” (Marnewick & Labuschagne, 2011).

Given that projects live in a very dynamic context, project governance seems to be much more fluid than something that is just a box of assorted procedures, processes, methods and human actors. What it means is that while the structure part of project governance is a necessity (as the common understanding is), the soft part of project governance cannot be ignored too. Hence, project governance is more of an amalgamation of soft governance and hard governance.

Before we look at what it means to taking a soft versus hard governance or hybrid governance approach to management of projects, let me provide generic definitions of soft and hard governance for the sake of clarity of understanding. Soft governance is conceived as “non-binding, informal, flexible, heterarchic etc. …… put it in a nutshell: soft governance is less authoritative, less interventionist, more participatory’” (Slominski, 2008, p.2). Hard governance, on the other hand, “rests on law which means the adoption of binding regulations and directives.” Hard governance is viewed as “hierarchic, command-and-controloriented, uniform and inflexible” (Slominski, 2008, p.2).

Soft governance approach to Project Management
Taking a soft governance approach to project management would mean (potentially) doing a number of things including, but not limited to:

  1. Act as a participatory leader who involves team members in strategic as well tactical aspects of project.
  2. Exercise situational leadership to dynamically handle emergence within the project.
  3. Delegate authority (enshrined in the roles and responsibilities) rather than centralizing the authority.
  4. Instill confidence and trust through deeds and actions.
  5. Exercise scalable leadership to deal with common to complex problems.
  6. Construct well-oiled teams.
  7. Engage with people effectively and breed trustworthy relationships.
  8. Promote cooperation rather than competition among the team members.
  9. Install a governance mechanism that is flexible yet formal to ensure right people are involved at right level of decision making.
  10. Enlarge knowledge bandwidth of team through collective efforts.

Hard governance approach to Project Management
Taking a hard governance approach to management of projects would entail (not limited to though):

  1. Having formal, bureaucratic procedures.
  2. Project task will be central to governance.
  3. Punishment procedures will be well chalked out and implemented.
  4. Power structure oriented.
  5. Breed politics and competition.
  6. Roles and responsibilities clearly delineated.
  7. Formal start and end often celebrated with possible photo-ops.
  8. Autocratic leadership is often visible.
  9. Timely completion of project deliverables is emphasized.
  10. Often project staff attrition is a common occurrence.

What happens if you choose Either or Combination?
Knowing the characteristics of Soft and Hard types of governance in project management, a number of critical questions come to fore. Such as (but not limited to):

  • Which approach should you choose to use for management of your projects?
  • Is either of the two superior to the other?
  • Is ‘combined hybrid approach’ the solution to effective project governance?
  • Which one is more suited to which type of projects?

There is no simple answer to any of the above questions. But as a matter of guidance, the following matrix presents what happens if ether or combination of the approaches are adopted. And how level of adoption could affect the overall governance and management of projects? That matrix also includes various properties of Project Governance styles for guidance.

The matrix is divided into four quadrants:
1. A ‘LL’ (Low on both Hard and Soft) Governance format is considered to have Chaotic Project
Governance style.
2. A ’LH’ (Low on Hard but High on Soft) Governance format is considered to have Relational Project
Governance style.
3. A ’HL’ (High on Hard but Low on Soft) Governance format is considered to have Authoritative Project Governance style.
4. A ’HH’ (High on Hard but High on Soft) Governance format is considered to have Engaging Project
Governance style.

Figure: Soft vs Hard Governance Matrix

Concluding thoughts:
Project management knowledge is still evolving. Due to its broad scope and utility, naturally the knowledge is used in a variety of industrial and business contexts. Its application is becoming complex as nature or projects is becoming complex too. Such a situation demands sound project governance.

Some people prefer soft governance and others hard governance style. Both styles offer advantages and dis-advantages and have their pros and cons. It seems that no matter which of the two you choose or feel comfortable with, it is like walking on a tight rope either way. Project governance mastery can only come from experience, application, learning and constant refinement. But one thing is certain, future project management needs evolving governance that is balanced and lean.

Marnewick, C., & Labuschagne, L. (2011). An investigation into the governance of information technology projects in South Africa. International Journal of Project Management, 29(6), 661-670.
Slominski, P. (2008). Taking hybridity of hard and soft forms of governance seriously: Concept, choice and interaction of legal instruments in the EU. In ECPR Standing Group on the European Union Pan-European Conference, Riga (pp. 27-28).


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Author of this post

Jiwat is a Professor in Project Management. He has considerable experience of working internationally in diverse cultures and business environments such as Hong Kong, China, Singapore, and Australia, among others. Over his career, he has provided leadership in establishing, designing, and delivering Executive education / Master’s, Training, and Research programs.

Jiwat is currently serving on the Editorial Board of International Journal of Project Management. He also pioneered, established and published an electronic journal ‘SWPS’ and remained its Editor-in-Chief. He also directed publication of a monthly newsletter, ‘Project Management Voice.’

Jiwat actively contributes to project management community by speaking at various events and writing on emerging issues. His work has been published in top scientific journals and Four of his published papers have remained in Top25 most downloaded papers. Additionally, two of his papers have been ranked as the Most Cited article published since 2012, one in the International Journal of Production Economics and the other in Journal of Engineering and Technology Management. More recently, he has published a number of articles on some of the issues confronting project management in various industry based outlets.

In 2016, Jiwat won Asia Pacific Federation of Project Management (APFPM) Award in research category.