We all need governance (2)

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. Flow was one of the key themes of the day. The post got a bit long, so following some advice, I split it into two parts.

Part 1 | Part 2 |

This is the second part of a two-part post on why we need governance and how we can improve governance.

In the first part I tried to convince a room full of 150 delivery managers from the largest department in the UK civil service that they needed governance to help them deliver.

That was a hard sell, so I wanted to also contribute some practical thinking about how to improve governance and a promise that doing such things can be worth it.

Communication is the single biggest way to improve governance

When communication breaks down

The brilliant Emily Webber was speaking before me at the meet up.

She talked about silos in organisation. People working in silos often don’t communicate effectively across silos. Indeed, they often talk like this about people working in a different part of the organisation:

Image for post
Image for post

Rather than thinking about other people as individuals, people start thinking of them as a homogenous group and describe them as such. This is turn makes communication more difficult and hinders the flow of information between them.

I see this happen in relation to governance.

I hear people working in governance functions— such as people working in a project management office (PMO), or the secretariat for a management board — say things like:

Delivery managers are rubbish at planning in advance. They don’t understand that board agendas get full months in advance. They think the organisation should revolve around their project. There’s no room for their business on the agenda at the time they’re asking for.”

Similarly, I hear delivery managers say things like:

The secretariat are rubbish. They don’t understand how we work and are so inflexible. There’s no way that we could have known about this months ago. They’re delaying our delivery.”

The PMO are rubbish. I’ve spent days re-writing our reports just to fit in with their format and answer their questions. It’s such a waste of time and doesn’t help me deliver my product.”

I’m not suggesting anyone is particularly at fault here.

What I am suggesting is two other things. First, each of us can play a part in improving how we work together, and second, it’s worth trying to re-set the relationship between people on delivery teams and people working in governance functions.

Rob Base & DJ EZ Rock — It Takes Two

Given we’re looking for a re-set, we can take a leaf out of retrospectives, follow Norman Kerth’s prime directive, and approach each other believing that “everyone did the best job he or she could, give what was know at the time, his or her skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand”.

People working in governance functions

People involved in operating governance bodies and processes can play a big part in improving communication, to move past silo working, and so improve flow.

If you work in a governance function, I suggest you adopt a service mindset. Think about governance as a service. Think about who uses your service and speak to them: listen to your users.

Delivery managers

People working in delivery teams can also play a big role in re-setting the relationship.

As someone focused on delivery, what’s your experience of governance in your organisation?

I suggest you share with your colleagues working in governance functions some of your (user) stories about how governance has impacted delivery, share your pain points and your needs.

In sharing your stories, I suggest a little less attitude.

In doing so, bear in mind some of @jukesie’s advice from a great post on what he calls “gatekeeper roles” (and I include in this category people working in a governance function):

Contrary to some opinions, they are not there to slow you down or derail you. It is just that they are coming at things with a different perspective, a different set of objectives.

They are probably also trying to cater for the needs of different groups of users. Communication is the best way to get understand how to work together:

the more you understand their point of view and the constraints they work within, the better you can work together.

It can help to think about Emily’s Team Onion. If you see them as potential collaborators or supporters who can support delivery, you can share the good and the bad with them. You can help them understand the vision behind what you’re trying to deliver and the role they can play in creating flow and supporting delivery. And you can help them understand some of the negative impacts governance can have on delivery when it isn’t seen as a service. Likelihood is they may not have had the chance to see things from your perspective before.

Improving governance is worth it

This might sound like extra work, so you might be asking yourself:
‘Why bother?’

I’ll give you two examples of why improving governance is worth it.

1) You can reduce lead time

One of the benefits of open communication between people working in governance functions and people in delivery teams is to avoid or at least reduce/minimise delay to the delivery team.

At the Food Standards Agency (FSA), we planned the work of the executive management team (EMT, the top executive decision-making body in the department) openly on a Trello board. Anyone working in the organisation could get access to the board.

Anyone could look at EMT’s forward work programme and see when they would meet and what they would be doing. They could also look at the backlog to see the stacked up demands on EMT’s time, work that had not yet been allocated time on an agenda. The FSA also had a clear set of corporate priorities. If you were working on a piece of work that was a corporate priority, you got priority for time with EMT.

This open planning system facilitated many useful conversations about what delivery teams wanted and what was possible from the perspective of managing EMT’s time, which in turn led to much re-jigging of agendas.

One consequence was (rightly) to raise the expectations of those working on the organisation’s priorities for how soon they might ‘get a slot’ with EMT. Indeed, we raised expectations so far that the SRO of one programme complained when a business case had to wait a week before EMT could consider it — even though that timetable did not delay other aspects of the approval process.

To get an idea of the extent of how much we improved flow, compare that to another government department where I was told delivery was held up for months, because the delivery team had to wait that long to get a slot on the agenda of a governance board.

2) You can cut out layers of governance

Even better, the open planning system led to conversations with those managing delivery of work that was not a corporate priority: if the work was not a priority for the organisation, did it need to be considered by EMT at all? Could you get on and deliver it without consulting EMT?

I say “even better”, because as Peter Drucker famously said:

“There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.”

As a delivery manager, you should be ambitious in your aims for governance. You can be bold and challenge the status quo. Don’t accept that you need to go to multiple different approvals boards, with reports written in multiple different formats/templates.

It’s all very well improving flow, but in some cases it might just be polishing a turd.

Be clear about what you need from governance. Re-think your governance. Re-design your governance, based around the needs of the people who use it.

For example, before you set up a project board, ask: why do you want a project board? What is it for? Why do you need one? And is a project board the best way of meeting those needs?

Disclaimer: I don’t know whether Liam Neeson thinks of user needs when considering project boards.

Asking these sorts of questions can lead to cutting out layers of governance.

In one example at the FSA, instead of setting up a programme board, we set up monthly show and tell sessions with the team, timed around their delivery schedule. We achieved this because people working on delivery and people working in a governance role talked and asked these questions.

In another example at the FSA, we reduced the layers of governance for a key delivery programme from five to two. Again, this was the result of communication, asking why, and not accepting processes that slowed down delivery.

What does good governance look like?

After my talk, I was asked this question.

My answer was that several people more qualified and experienced than me have already written fantastic things about what good governance looks like: Mark, the Government Digital Service (GDS), the National Audit Office (NAO), and Jamie at Co-op digital have all written fantastic, clear things about governance of a digital project/service. So if you’re looking for an idea of what good (agile) governance looks like, I suggest you go read what they’ve written. And then go and apply their principles!

And if that’s not enough for you, here’s a reading list you can have a look at.

Senior Director @ElsevierConnect doing product strategy implementation & performance. Mainly writing about getting from A to B, & digital stuff. Personal acc’t.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store