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Say “governance” and blame never follows too far behind. Accountability, so far as I can tell, is a synonym for “who shall we sack?”

No wonder most people avoid discussing governance.

I’ve been facing it head-on recently. I’ve run several workshops on product development governance within a variety of organisations.  

In particular, we’ve been looking at some of the key decisions that people make during the course of product and systems development, and at how they allocate responsibility for those decisions.

The results have been interesting. One of the most common patterns I’ve seen is a “governance vacuum” surrounding key decisions. This comes up in just about every workshop.

Everyone recognises that a decision, say about defining product priorities, is critical to success. And everyone thinks that someone else is responsible for this decision.

Project managers think that the programme sponsor should make the decision. Sponsors think that it’s the project manager’s responsibility. Technical people think it’s a product management function.  Product managers see it as a purely technical concern.

The net effect is that decisions are left in limbo. Everyone complains about how slow the organisation is to make them. But they take this as a matter of course – as if it’s a basic fact of the universe that Organisation X will make decisions slowly.

“We have a problem with making decisions”, they say. No, they have a problem with not making decisions.

The opposite pattern is also common. Governance standoffs, where several groups all think they are solely responsible for a decision, also come up frequently.  

These often entail a lot more fireworks, as people jealously guard “their” patch. But they have the same end results:

  • Delay. Decisions don't get made, either because no one is looking after them, or because everyone is too busy fighting to attend to them.
  • Overly hasty decisions. Eventually you can't put off the decision any longer  By this point, there isn't time to undertake data gathering and analysis. Decisions get made on the basis of gut feel and machismo.  

    If you have a lot of crisis meetings, look for blockages – vacuums and standoffs – upstream in the process.

  • Relationship breakdowns. Fighting about decision rights, either to protect the ones you want or to offload the ones you don't want, can get pretty savage. After all, this is about power.  

    It’s hard to do that without damaging relationships. Eventually the infighting gets entrenched, the underlying decisions a mere pretext for battle.

  • Bureaucracy. Organisations often try to compensate for the delays, hastiness and personal animosities by resorting to rules. They try to define precise policies to apply to every decision.  

    In a dynamic environment, that’s next to impossible: it simply creates further delay as you create new policies to deal with each new exception. And rules become perfect hiding places for people who wish to avoid accountability.

The solution to such problems is remarkably simple: starting talking about governance. The major holes become apparent pretty quickly. (My workshops have surfaced a lot of issues within half a day.) You can then start to think about how to fill the gaps.

Of course, that can be hard. You’ll often find that no one person or group is best placed to make every decision, or even a clear subset of any decision type. You then need to start looking at different governance models.  You may need to make a few trade-offs.

You may also need to address some of the common barriers to effective governance.  For example:

  • Fear and blaming. People often avoid decisions because they’re scared they’ll be blamed if they get it wrong. If your organisation isn’t prepared to let people get things wrong occasionally, then it has to expect decision vacuums.
  • Micromanagement. When senior managers step in too soon, either to make decisions or to reverse the ones they disagree with, they rob people of any real authority. Eventually all decision-making gets deferred upwards.  A decision backlog, with consequent delays and crisis meetings, is almost inevitable.
  • Information hoarding. You need two types of information to make good decisions – awareness of what’s happening “on the ground”, and knowledge of the organisation’s objectives and strategic intent.  

    If that information is never brought together, you can expect poor decisions.

  • Lack of practice. Like anything else, decision-making improves with practice. If you don’t give decision-making bodies the chance to rehearse, to build relationships and operating procedures, to practice on small decisions, then it can hardly be surprising if they get bogged down on major decisions.
  • Perfectionism. Governance has its own forms of analysis paralysis. Organisations seek the perfect governance model, the perfect set of decision criteria, the ideal group of decision makers.  

    Spend too much time on this, and you’ll never have time to actually make decisions.

I don't think there’s such a thing as a perfect governance model. You can centralise decision-making, or you can devolve it. You can be autocratic or democratic.  

Self-organising teams or command-and-control. Depending on your environment, your culture, your market, your product, your skills, and so on, they can all work.  (And they can all fall apart spectacularly).

What definitely doesn't work is avoidance. If you avoid discussing governance, the vacuums and standoffs fester  Deadlocks and stasis ensue.

To develop products and systems effectively, you need to start making active choices about what governance structures will work for you.

Graham Oakes

Published 22 March, 2013 by Graham Oakes

Graham Oakes helps people untangle complex technology, processes, relationships and governance. He is contributor to Econsultancy.

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Comments (2)

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Payson Hall

Excellent post. Short, sweet, and to the point. Take away line: "If you avoid discussing governance, the vacuums and standoffs fester"

about 3 years ago

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Breanne Boland, Marketing Writer/Editor/Special Project Lead at content26

This is perfect. Between the often-unworkable extremes of too many cooks and no one wanting to take responsibility are the many follies detailed here. And yes, it's an organizational disease that can pop up in situations and projects that always seem to surprise those involved.

over 2 years ago

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