Why do organisations even want to contemplate changing their governance?
Many leaders find themselves in meeting hell as they progress up the chain of command. They counsel their people to decline meetings and leave them if they are not providing or getting value. Those same leaders find themselves in meetings that “must” happen, and they find themselves reading reports late into the night because they have to respond.
It is often assumed in the modern world that leaders must be available for their people. A modern leader must have the space to provide support, coaching, and mentoring that a successful culture demands. However, it is just as common that the intent is sabotaged by the constructs of less-modern governance structures.
This results in expectations being set, implicitly or explicitly, of working late into the night and sacrificing work/life balance, of attending meetings with little value, of generating reports regardless of value, and so forth. The fish rots from the head.
We can conclude that if we really want a modern organisational culture, we need a modern, fit-for-purpose governance solution.
Agility is not a best practice, but a mindset for uncovering good and better practices. This requires an emergent, context-specific good practice of governance. Remote: AF and Esther Derby have spent the last year working to generate a process for just this approach to governance.
More and more, organisations are realising that if they truly want to change their culture, they must change their governance. Agility started with the scrum software team, spread through the IT department in the form of DevOps, and through the rest of the organisation in Business Agility – but governance has, until now, been a holdout from this evolution. As long as it remains so, it has the potential to have an out-sized impact, holding the business back from true agility.
Governance is big! Many organisations shy away from changing it for a variety of reasons:
- Some see it as too hard – a black box they don’t understand
- Some see it as unchangeable due to regulation and/or compliance issues – these are usually less constraining than they are perceived to be, we term this as grey-tape.
- Some believe that the layers of organisational detritus that have increased complexity over the years are so entrenched in their culture, that is presents no value to instigate change (we call this Forrest Gumping – they’ve been running so long, they no longer know where they are going, why they are going, or how they are going to get there – let alone what’s at the end)
These barriers usually present themselves due to poor governance being established in the first place. In fact, they are easily surpassed once an organisation decides it really wants to change.
This is usually when one or more of a set of triggers, both extrinsic and intrinsic, arise that disrupt the cultural status quo and result in the need for change. It’s how the organisation then adapts its governing principles and culture to deal with the challenge of those triggers.
Those triggers would be:
- Market Disruption (new players, new offerings)
- Existential Threats (pandemics, wars, natural disasters)
- Competitor pressures
- Grey-tape frustration
- Leadership transition (new CEO, board members etc.)
- Challenges in delivering the organisation’s strategic direction
- Organisational restructures
So how can organisations use governance to respond?
To surpass these obstacles, we find it best to reframe a change of governance as a way of overcoming these problems.
Too often governing the system is not addressed. In which case existing heavy-weight and traditional systems either continue or are built upon in an effort to take control. This results in a culture of oversight, reactivity and retribution.
Remote Agile Governance seeks to create a lightweight and adaptive method that enables a culture of transparency, proactivity and trust.
So how do we start?
Firstly, let’s define what we mean by governance in the context of this article. Governance is not (just) forums, meetings, and reports. It is all the ways an organisation makes decisions to enact strategy.
To provide more clarity on this we thought it would be useful to provide you with some examples of the deep connection between culture and governance. We look at three examples where culture and governance meshed and formed a mutually reinforcing relationship – for good or for ill.
Transformation 1 – Successful
In the early 2000’s, a particularly large Australian organisation embarked on using Agile to transform. It was successful to the point of proving the method delivered and delivered well, but the embedded traditional leadership and governance culture of the organisation were not brought along for the ride. Needless to say, that culture won out and Agile was consigned to the “doesn’t work for our organisation” page of history.
Roll forward 3 years and with the appointment of a Senior leader that had seen and had success with Agility in previous organisations they pressed forward with transforming.
Such was the success of the transformation that they became one of the first organisations to really embrace what we now call “Business Agility” and the associated agile culture. We must say, this didn’t happen overnight nor was it done with the wave of the proverbial agile wand. However, the point of difference to the previous attempt was the undertaking to embrace the system of governing as a whole.
Let’s dig a little deeper into that, the change to the delivery models, in essence, were easily designed and the actual physical transition was much the same. Where this change differed was the focus on addressing the need to bring leadership along for the ride, imbuing the cultural change by them Leading by Example. Alongside this a recognition that changing the mechanisms of organisation governance to:
- adaptive portfolios,
- complimentary funding cycles,
- reduced layers of hierarchy,
- organisational process detritus
is essential to enable that culture. The very decision to do so embedded this into the psyche of the organisation; it became a place where people wanted to work and others wanted to join.
Transformation 2 – Partly successful
Another large organisation of note provides a common example. A gradual transformation over a number of years brought their IT department to relatively cutting-edge practices. However, the change was viewed as IT-centric, by people both within and outside the IT department. Because of this, two problems continued.
A rift between business and IT remained in place for some parts of the business, while others had embraced the change and grew with it wholeheartedly. Just as importantly, the change was never expanded across the program management capability. This meant the change didn’t deliver as much benefit as it could, and it was easy to wind back to more traditional ways of working as leaders changed and the agility was not viewed as beneficial. The change had not embedded itself into the culture because the governance structures were not changed at all.
This is not to say there were no positive aspects to the transformation – there were many. However, the lack of embedment into the governance meant that the transformation was easy to undo. The full potential benefits were never felt. This is a story of a partly successful transformation.
Transformation 3 – Unsuccessful
A large public sector organisation initiated a transformation aimed at generating business agility. The impetus came from a number of technology-based teams which were viewed as high performing, and a desire to replicate this across the organisation.
There were several impediments which meant that this transformation did not generate momentum. One was a lack of buy-in from leaders. The senior leader who initiated the transformation soon moved on to another job and there was a gap in sponsorship. Without a clear vision and mandate from above, the middle-tier leaders were not ready to dive into a wholesale change. Note, the culture in this organisation was hierarchical, which meant that the senior leadership champion was all-important. And when the senior leader went missing, the transformation was likely to fail.
The governance structures in this organisation were very complex, requiring multi-slide diagrams to explain, and this collection of meetings and forums was regarded with two contrasting views. They were seen as unwieldy, and the individual meetings were regarded by participants as ineffectual. By contrast the governance structure as a whole was seen as crucial and out of scope. The leaders asked a consultancy to map the governance and this resulted in very little change.
While this transformation produced pockets of change and improvement, it was widely ineffective due to a lack of culture and governance change. In an alternative world, we can see how bringing the leaders on board is tied closely to reducing the overhead and increasing the effectiveness of governance structures. Without doing the one, it was impossible to do the other. And with neither in place, the transformation floundered.
We can see from these examples that when trying to make organisational change, we must closely consider both the governance and the culture. We cannot change one without changing the other.
Don’t duplicate in digitality what worked for you in physicality
An important thing to note as we move further and further into the world of Digitality (a concept popularised by Nicholas Negroponte in his 1995 book, Being Digital) is that we cannot expect to duplicate in the digital world what worked for us in the physical world, and for it to have the same effectiveness.
There is no reason to think that because a meeting worked well in the pre-pandemic world, that the same meeting should be just as effective now.
The writers have observed numerous organisations move their existing governance and process structures directly over to the digital world. The leaders then find it is much harder for them to know what is going on – as they do not have the same sense of control that they had when everyone was in the office around them. They then double down on meetings, creating extra meeting overhead to retain that sense of control. The end result is a group of people who are in meetings all day, struggling to get anything done and suffering from “Zoom-fatigue.”
There are other ways!
Working virtually or hybrid has a lot of advantages over working in person, as well as some obvious disadvantages. We need to emphasise the positives while minimising the negatives.
Arrange for meetings to be short and sharp, with more communication happening outside the meeting. The meeting itself becomes a central point for emphasising a message, creating a social cohesion, or for allowing the group to feel heard.
The asynchronous chat function allows more work to be done as and when it suits those people doing the work.
As an example, an All Hands Planning meeting in the physical world will usually be two days in a large room with a lot of energy and noise. There are a number of reasons for this – however the main reason is logistics. People are likely flying in, there is a facility to find and book, and catering to organise and so forth. If the event is to happen in the physical world, it must be made as short as possible.
If we are working in a digital or hybrid world, we do not have these same constraints. It is therefore possible, and usually preferable, to spread the planning process out over the course of a week or even more. It gives teams the opportunity to plan with more detail where appropriate, and to deep dive where appropriate, and provides more time to explore dependencies, risks, and opportunities.
Doing things the same way in digitality would result in us subjecting participants to two days of full-time meeting, maximise zoom fatigue, and minimise the benefits that come with online work.
Similarly, when we are designing our governance and our culture, the things that work best in the physical world should not be picked up and dropped into the remote or hybrid workplace without careful consideration.
Agile meetings are governance meetings!
A final point that is often missed: when done well the traditional scrum or agile meetings are governance meetings. A daily stand-up or daily scrum gives teams the chance to make decisions and change direction.
A showcase for a team or for a program gives those in the room the chance to provide direction, guidance and to make decisions. An All Hands Planning event provides a chance for very many decisions to be made at the time of the session, without needing referral to some committee.
A common mistake when creating a new agile structure is for the new set of meetings to be created but not to remove any of the committees that existed previously, and not to allow the new set of meetings the power to make decisions. Much agility is lost in this case.
Principles of Remote Agile Governance
Our exploration of Remote Agile Governance led to an understanding that all of the factors above – agility being linked so closely to governance and to culture – mean we can rethink the way we govern using the definition of governance as all the ways an organisation makes decisions to enact strategy.
To aid and enable the understanding of this broadened definition, we designed Remote Agile Governance to first broaden the understanding of governance, and then to design the right constructs for the culture and strategy of the organisation.
In order to instil a modern agile culture throughout an organisation, we have defined the following Principles of Remote Agile Governance. We have included examples based on a simple exercise – setting up a prioritisation framework for a new remote team of teams.
Decide How to Decide
Govern the logic, not the decision itself. Design mechanisms to ensure the logic is clear and consistent.
Governance should ensure the prioritisation framework is good enough, not doing the prioritisation. Monitor the results closely enough, that you can provide reasonable guidance on
Decide Who Decides
Set up decision-making frameworks to allow decisions to be made close in person and context.
Governance means ensuring there is a clear accountability. Traditionally people look for a role and say something like “The Product Manager must prioritise the backlog.” In fact, it is not important for governance which role prioritises the backlog, it is important that the accountability exists, and is assigned to someone appropriate enough.
Decide When to Decide
Decisions should be made at the most appropriate time given the context – not too soon, not too late.
Ensure prioritisation is occurring at the right intervals in order to be adaptive to the situations the organisation is experiencing – which means continuous prioritisation. This is particularly more effective where you have been able to allocate the accountability to one person.
Focus on Value
Define the business or customer problem or opportunity early and refer to it constantly. If governance is about one thing it should be about a clear alignment of our people to customer value.
This aspect would look at how the prioritisation framework defines value (the content of the framework rather than the process of it) and looking at the outcomes delivered, prompt re-evaluation of value definition accordingly.
Plan Based on Forecasts
Regardless of what financial advice disclaimers may say, past performance is our best guide to future performance. Use past performance to guide forecasts. We use the word forecast advisedly and advocate that there are no absolutes, no set-in-stone markers. We want to avoid stage-gate hell, watermelon reporting (everything is green until you dig deeper and it’s red) and we equally want to avoid re-planning hell. However, we also need to be able to communicate sensibly across our organisation with what (based on the current state of knowledge) we can expect, and when. The forecasting approach is best for this.
With an adaptive prioritisation framework, this would also mean using past outcomes to guide tweaks to future improvements to the content and/or process of the prioritisation framework.
Navigate with Insight
Use information. By information we mean not just data, but also introspection, stories, relationships, collaboration – the context turns the data into information. Discuss what insights the data may give us. Data on its own can lead to tunnel vision. Anecdote on its own leads to disaster.
It’s important to note here that governance exists out of the box in most agile frameworks. Scrum and Kanban have specific meetings in place, which allow us to execute all the above practices. A scrum of scrums meeting in a scaled framework should be regarded as a governance meeting and empowered to make decisions as needed. If this is not the case, then we are not executing agile governance, but adding a layer on top of agility to slow it down.
For a prioritisation framework, the governance aspect should be to look at the outcomes from implemented solutions and use that data to inspect whether the “right” items were prioritised. If some items are not producing the value we expect, it may make sense to define value differently within the framework, or weight different aspects of value differently. It may mean we need to use a different framework entirely, with an emphasis on capacity allocation rather than a simple value matrix.
How does this approach influence culture?
Hopefully, the simple example of a prioritisation framework puts some meat on the bones of these ideas. To continue with the example, traditional governance structures would likely have a governance committee making prioritisation decisions. Using the principles applied above, there is no such committee but the people attending existing meetings, looking at real data, and having conversations to understand what is going on. Then using this combination to make experimental changes.
This means our people feel empowered to make changes, do not feel the need to get sign-off from a higher authority, it means that changes happen more rapidly, and that all our people are focusing on the things that matter. Conversely, leaders are then able to concentrate on making expedient directional decisions and interventions that enable the flow of work.
Of course, governance goes a lot further than just prioritisation. As we said earlier, governance is about all the ways an organisation makes decisions to enact strategy.
- Should we partner with our customers, or be a service provider?
- What architecture will we use for a new feature?
- What kind of service will we build for a new piece of logic?
- What new feature should we build?
- How should we talk to our customers?
- Should I create a bespoke change management plan, or use one out of the box?
- Who should we target as future customers?
All these, and a million other decisions made every day, might be made in a variety of ways depending on the organisation, and the culture.
When we use remote agile governance to look at how we make such decisions, we encourage decisions made as close to the work context as possible.
There are two possible outcomes:
- Your business will become more agile and deliver better outcomes to the customer.
- Or your business will feel pain – friction points where people are required to make decisions but are concerned that they do not know enough, might be punished for making the wrong decision, or they simply expect decisions to be made higher in the hierarchy.
In case 1) we can consider that the culture already matches the governance model. Remote Agile Governance is therefore a good match for the existing culture and will reinforce desired behaviours.
In case 2) we see that the current culture does not match the governance model. This does not mean, however, that we should remove Remote Agile Governance. (We can, and can revert to the old model, there is nothing wrong with that. Failed experiments help us learn.) When we feel this pain, it shows the aspects of the culture that we need to change to adapt to remote agile governance, and therefore to help the organisation thrive in the modern world.
We have seen the above examples of how decision-making frameworks influence the culture, and vice versa. There is a potentially mutually reinforcing effect that can strengthen both aspects if the framework fits the culture or fall apart if it does not.
It may be that we need to truly empower our people and change the “cover your own backside” culture.
Using the principles of remote governance and extending them to all of the decisions that matter in your organisation will allow business agility, a culture of empowerment, and a focus on the customer and the outcome for the customer.
R:AF built Remote Agile Governance as a way to understand, and then evolve, the full picture of governance in order to help grow the cultures that can thrive in the modern remote and hybrid world.
So, we have seen that governance and culture are tightly intertwined. We have seen that the remote or hybrid world (digitality) must be treated differently from the physical workplace, and we have seen that agility is closely tied to governance. We have seen that there are simple principles to apply that help us to generate a system of governance that is fit for a modern organisation working in digitality.
Our exploration of remote agile governance has led to a great deal of excitement as we uncover new ways of governing and making decisions that allow organisations, and their people, to thrive in the modern world.
- Governance and Culture are inextricably intertwined
- The Principles of Remote Agile governance help us create better governance and better culture
- We can’t succeed in the remote workplace by replicating what we did in the physical office
- Remote and hybrid environments need remote and hybrid governance
- Using Remote Agile Governance to craft a new approach helps us grow our culture and governance approach for the new world
First published in: InfoQ, Using Remote Agile Governance to Create the Culture Organisations Need
Co-authored by: James McMenamin