Your governance sucks

"I’ve seen what gets exaggerated and by whom, and where the real and underreported impact lies." - Jan Chipchase, Studio D

Governance is something that gets exaggerated. By organisations, consultancies, design agencies. You name it. I wonder though, just how many places of work are stifled by meetings masquerading as governance? I bet yours is. Mine too! Pre-meetings for the real meetings are my favourite.

From my experience, at least 80% of decisions are made outside of meetings. Yet governance is supposed to be all about making better decisions. Where did it go so wrong? How did we end up conflating governance with meetings?

I have a hunch that it's not so much about the meetings. They’re a red herring, or a symptom. The root of it is we often fall into the trap of using governance for managing risk, rather than accountability. Meetings just reinforce the sense of accountability and risk being held at the top, and never cascaded down.

So what’s the difference? Well, risk exists whether there is accountability or not. Placing bets, doing strategy, building a thing – they all inherently contain risk. It’s the idea that things can go wrong, unexpected outcomes might be realised, stuff fails. Accountability is the idea of taking responsibility for the risk. Managing it, owning it, planning for it. Even just being aware of it.

Proper governance to me doesn’t feel like meetings or stage gates, with risk and accountability so tightly coupled. For delivery teams this means anything coming from the top-down, that looks like autonomy or permission to make a decision, just isn’t believable. They don’t get so much as a smell of accountability and instead just own the fear. If anyone tells you that they’re institutionalised – you can bet this is a big part of it.

A better way is using mechanisms to place accountability at the right level, which allows you to cascade the risk down the chain. To a team, that feels like real autonomy; being able to make decisions and be held accountable for the risk that comes with that power. It should feel empowering.

In practice, we should get into the habit of organising ourselves and working in a way that is much more conducive to this form of ‘open governance’. Rather than wait for meetings, share progress early and often in a way that works for your culture. If your culture is built on risk aversion, make this sharing a little more regimented and formal. Things like week-notes might be better received as well thought out briefing notes.

Open up your meetings, and stop using them to reinforce hierarchies. If a decision needs to be made higher up, bring that person into the delivery space and help them understand what’s really happening. Give them the tools to detect and see the right signals for themselves.

Make decisions in the open, and document they ‘why’ behind them. Not to cover your back, or for pure audits sake. To allow others to see, learn and adapt from the history of the choices you’re making as an organisation. The strength of your decision making is only ever in the quality of the things you learn from them when they go wrong.

Don’t outsource or offload governance to a programme office (PMO) or team. Harsh, but to me PMO is pretty much an acronym for ‘potentially mediocre organisation’. I’d argue this stuff should be owned at the heart of the team actually doing the work.

Circling back to Jan Chipchase, another snippet of gold from him that I’m repurposing here as an analogy for good governance is the idea of finding ‘the highest signal-to-noise ratio’. Project status reports, risk logs and timelines are all well and good – but more often than not they end up as fairly pointless abstractions. Moments in time that don’t add value when making decisions. That’s not governance, that’s noise. Find the stuff that really gives you a signal.

I don’t want to see your risk log, whether it looks pretty in all its RAG rating glory or not. Show me how you use proper common sense open governance mechanisms to place accountability at the right level. I reckon you’ll start making better decisions if you do.


Things I'm thinking about, for long enough to write them down: