Vacuums and Standoffs: Concerns for Organisational Governance

By Graham Oakes | 21 May 2013

Responsibility and, perhaps more importantly, accountability are crucial to successful organisational governance, but there’s a right and wrong approach, says Graham Oakes.

In most organisations, “accountability” is a synonym for “Who will we sack?” By equating governance with blame, they make it one of the great un-discussable topics.

That’s a loss. I’ve run workshops on product development governance with several organisations recently, and the results have been interesting. The same patterns emerge across a wide variety of people.

We’ve been looking at the decisions people make during the course of product and systems development, and at the way they allocate responsibility for those decisions. Organisations do this in all sorts of ways – some are top-down, some are bottom-up, some centralised, some devolved. But they all have common gaps in their governance.

The first of these is the “governance vacuum”. Every organisation has one somewhere. Everyone recognises that a decision, say about allocating specialist skills, is critical to success. And everyone thinks that responsibility lies with someone else.

Project managers think the programme director makes the decision. Directors think the project managers do it. Product managers see it as a technical problem. Technical people think it’s a product management concern.

So the decision is left in limbo. People point fingers. They complain about slow decision making. But nothing happens.

Governance standoffs, the opposite pattern, are also common. In this case, several groups all think they own the decision. These create a lot more fireworks, as people guard “their” patch, but they have the same end results:

  • Delay – People don’t make decisions, either because they don’t think they own them, or because they’re too busy fighting about ownership.
  • Last minute decisions – By the time the decision can no longer be ignored, it’s too late to undertake any sensible analysis. Decisions are now driven by gut feel and machismo. If you have a lot of crisis meetings, then there are probably vacuums and standoffs somewhere upstream in the process.
  • Broken relationships – Governance fights, either to offload the decision rights you don’t want or to protect the ones you do, can get pretty savage. They tend to damage relationships. Eventually the fighting becomes entrenched – the decisions are forgotten, a mere pretext for battle.
  • Bureaucracy – Organisations try to eliminate the above by resorting to rules. They define policies for every decision. This generally fails: in a dynamic environment, you can’t cover every possibility. Exceptions demand yet more rules, gumming up the works and creating the perfect hiding place for people who want to avoid accountability.

The solution to such problems is simple: talk about governance before you have to make the decision. The gaps become apparent pretty quickly. (My workshops surface a lot of issues within a half-day.) You can then start to think about how to fill them.

Of course, that can be hard. Decisions rarely belong cleanly with a single person – they touch too many interests, require too many skills. You have to make trade-offs, for example between speed and effectiveness. You may need to merge several governance models.

You’ll also probably need to address some of the common barriers to good governance:

  • Fear – People may avoid decisions because they’re scared they’ll be blamed if they get things wrong. If your organisation blames people for every mistake, it almost certainly has lots of decision vacuums.
  • Micromanagement – If senior managers make every decision, or if they quickly step in to reverse decisions they disagree with, they rob people of authority. Eventually all decisions get deferred upwards. A long decision backlog is almost inevitable.
  • Information hoarding – To make good decisions you need awareness both of what’s happening “on the ground” and of the organisation’s goals and strategic intent. If that information can’t be brought together, you’ll get poor decisions.
  • Lack of practice – Decision-making improves with practice. If you don’t give decision-making bodies the chance to build relationships and rehearse their operating procedures (e.g. via simulations), then they’ll probably struggle to make big decisions.
  • Perfectionism – Organisations sometimes look for the perfect governance model. That’s an endless search. You have to satisfice, accept a “good enough” model, or you’ll be left with no time to actually make the decisions.

I don’t believe the perfect governance model exists. You can be autocratic or democratic. Centralised or devolved. Self-organising teams or top-down command. Depending on your culture, your skills, your market, they can all work. And they can all fail spectacularly.

What definitely doesn’t work is avoidance. When you avoid governance, the vacuums and standoffs fester. To develop products and systems effectively, you need to make active choices about the governance structures you will use.

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