We all need governance (1)

I swear it’s true

Richard McLean
6 min readApr 21, 2018

This blogpost is adapted from a talk I gave at the first meet up of the delivery manager community in the Department for Work and Pensions, a major government department in the UK civil service. Flow was one of the key themes of the day. Inspired by this great post by Giles, I decided to re-write my talk as a blog post, in order to share it.

Part 1 | Part 2 |

I am often struck by how people working to deliver products and services are down on governance. Governance is spoken of as something that gets in the way of delivery, it slows us down. Governance is ‘other’, it is done to us. Governance is bad, it is a dirty word.

If possible, governance is something to be avoided.

But I reckon, we all need governance, including those of us working to deliver stuff directly to users/customers. It’s just that governance is often done in a way that doesn’t reflect the needs of many of its users.

So, the first part of this post is an attempt to outline three key reasons why we need governance if we’re working on delivery. In the second part, I’m going to suggest the single biggest thing we can all do to improve governance, and illustrate why that is worth doing.

1) Governance helps to prioritise and stop stuff, so we can go faster

If we didn’t have governance in an organisation, there’d be no flow.

I know that when I try and do a lot of stuff at once, I’m pretty ineffectual. I can be really busy, working on lots of things, juggling lots of balls, and yet at the end of the day I’m not sure I’ve achieved anything.

And this is a problem that scales up.

It’s the same at the team level. If a team is trying to do too much at once, if a project has lots of simultaneous workstreams, it can be overwhelming and can slow overall progress. It’s why lean and kanban have such a focus on limiting work in progress.

As Emily Webber explained at the meetup, pairing, swarming, and mobbing are all techniques where multiple people get together to focus on a single piece of work to get it done and stop it slowing down the flow. If you’re working on a single product/service/project, you can impose your own work in progress limit and use this kind of technique to resolve this problem.

But remember: the problem scales. Most organisations will be working on and trying to deliver more than one thing. Yet if there’s no prioritisation, and every project tries to go at the same time, it’ll be inefficient at best. More likely, it’ll be a car crash.

Governance can help this problem. In hindsight, one of the best things I did on the first programme I was involved in (and I did plenty of pretty rubbish things) was to say that we needed to stop two of the projects in the programme. Stopping some things freed us up to focus on the most important things.

The same applies at the portfolio level. Sometimes you need to stop one programme in order to have the capacity to start another programme. If as an organisation, you try to do too much and working on too many things at the same time, you might lose focus and end up going slower. If you prioritise, and stop some things, you can find your flow and optimal speed of delivery.

Apparently, Navy SEALs have the saying: “slow is smooth, and smooth is fast”. And I read that in the army they have a similar mantra: “slow is steady, steady is smooth, smooth is fast”. Remind you of something?

In the world of delivery, we have the agile manifesto, where there’s a similar principle: you should aim for a sustainable pace of delivery, so that you can “maintain a constant pace indefinitely”.

Smooth flow: only possible because some things are stopped

Delivery is successful when it has responsive, decisive governance.
It’s just that too often that isn’t the case.

2) There’s no magic money tree

Here’s another reason why we need governance.

In an organisation, there’s only so much money to go around, only so many people to work on stuff. Governance allocates money to cost centres and people to teams.

If we didn’t have governance, we’d have no money or people to deliver the things we’re trying to deliver.

3) “How’s it going?”

Governance provides assurance about how money is being spent and whether objectives are being achieved. Lots of different people, at different levels, need assurance.

As a tax payer, I want to know how my money is being spent. Is it being well spent? What results are there to show for the money the government has spent? Shareholders have a similar need in relation to the money they have invested in public or private corporations.

As an accounting officer (the most senior civil servant in a government department) , I might be asked by the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee to explain what the return is on a particular investment. As a chief executive, I will be held to account by the Chair/Board.

As a delivery manager, as an SRO, we often ask — and we are often asked — “how’s it going?” Governance helps to answer the question.

Governance as a service

In summary, as I see it, governance is a service that provides three key things, that meets three key needs:

  1. Setting direction: What objectives do we want to achieve? (I’m including here prioritisation — what’s our top priority? what do we want to achieve first?)
  2. People and money: What people and money are we going to use to achieve those objectives?
  3. Providing assurance: Are we achieving those objectives?

So, if we’re focused on delivery, the issue isn’t that we don’t want governance. We do: we need direction, we need people and money, we need assurance.

The issue is that governance is often not thought of as a service.
The issue is how governance is done.

This is why I don’t entirely agree with people who say the aim is ‘minimum viable governance’ or the ‘minimum set of constraints’. Such phrases make me think I should focus on reducing governance, minimising it. Yet if I’m trying to deliver something, I want the right amount of money, the right number of people. I want clarity of direction, I want assurance. So, instead of focusing on minimising governance, I want to focus on how people do governance. I want to change how people think about governance.

That is the end of the first part of this post in two parts. In Part 2, I’m going to suggest the single biggest thing we can all do to improve governance, and illustrate why that is worth doing.

P.S. If you’re wondering where the title for this blog post came from, a few days ago, after listening to Francois K’s epic Choice album, I had this song stuck in my head…



Richard McLean

Chief of staff @ElsevierConnect (Academic & Government group). Mainly writing about getting from A to B, teams, & digital product stuff. Personal account.