Common Sense Governance

by Geof Lory

It seems that this time of the year more Project Managers are on vacation leaving teams without anyone to nag them about schedules and budgets. Perhaps that is why I have recently been having a lot of conversations about governance on projects. When I say the word governance, what comes to your mind? Rules, penalties, Big Brother, accountability or your elementary school principal? In an effort to improve processes and provide consistent delivery of quality, governance of project management processes and procedures is not only smart, it is necessary. Few would dispute that.

I have to admit, as a father of two daughters, both now in their teens, governance is not my strong suit. As a parent, rules for the sake of rules or just because others feel that you should do something just hasn't been my modus operandi. As someone who makes a living by "helping organizations devise effective systems and procedures that promote improved project performance" (at least that is what it says on my business card), I have always preferred to put in place procedures that make so much sense and provide so much value while being so easy to practice that it would take more effort to not follow the procedure than to follow it.

This approach is in line with one of my basic beliefs that most people, like water, follow the path of least resistance. Probably a gross overstatement of human nature, but this assumption has served me pretty well over the years.

Unlike a small stream that winds down a mountain when impeded by visible rocks and trees, it is not always apparent what the resistance is or where it comes from when dealing with people. When developing, instituting and governing procedures, getting a handle on any resistance is critical to creating procedures that not only serve the intended purpose, but also are readily adopted.

The culture and maturity of an organization are fundamental considerations in applying governance, just as the family culture and physical and emotional maturity of parents and their children will influence their level and style of governance. Most organizations I work with are experiencing a high degree of change as they grow in size and complexity. Their evolution resembles the natural maturation process between child and parent. This stage of change is when children struggle with their independence like teams struggle with their empowerment, while parents and managers struggle with letting go but still governing. Effective negotiation of this tug of war will define the new relationship between the two.

When my first daughter, Jenna, was born 17 years ago, I looked at her big brown eyes and I knew governance was going to be a problem for me. When Erika was born 16 months later, I knew my efforts to be a strict rules enforcer would be hopeless. I needed to devise a better plan than the traditional "parent sets the rules, children obey" paradigm. A rebellious teenager myself, I recall heavy disciplinary governance was not my preference, and it could have crushed my budding spirit of independence. Rules can seem logical, but logic is not always applicable when talking about governance.

When the girls were quite young and unable to understand the implications of their actions beyond the present moment and themselves, governance was heavily rules-oriented. The purpose behind the rule was not important because they were not capable of fully understanding it anyway. "Don't run with scissors!" may have been entirely logical, but to someone who can't conceive a life with a permanent scar or impaired sight, it probably just feels like rain on their parade. Governance was exercising control or restraint. (Webster's Dictionary definition #4)

Over time, my daughters' perspectives got broader, their choices got more complex and their ability to manipulate their father got better; governance transitioned. It moved from rules and enforcement to logical processes and procedures that were difficult to refute rationally, but at times still felt equally unfair and restrictive. "Why can't I stay out past curfew on a school night? I promise I won't be tired in the morning." It is during this stage that I felt the greatest challenge in applying governance. A time of heavy transition and change requires letting go of the old and accepting or inventing the new. A scary proposition when the outcome is uncertain from both sides of the fence.

It is easy at this time for parents/managers to feel a sense of loss of control and a desire to over-govern. It is my belief that over-governance during this stage will result in lip-service to the process and underground behavior that will irrationally further delay adoption. The trust and understanding that is necessary for adoption can only be created by allowing for vulnerability, and entering into comfortable and respectful conflict. Only then is it possible to create new rules and procedures in a collaborative fashion. Governance, at this point, is about exercising a deciding or determining influence. (Webster's Dictionary definition #6)

Now, as the girls finish their high school years and anticipate greater independence in college, governance will need to shift from external (parental oversight) to internal (responsible citizen in society). At this stage they will own their own rules. Hopefully, their personal governance will reflect the values they grew up with such that the outcomes they get are in line with their adherence to themselves. Personal habits, hygiene and health, finances and relationships are all areas that could use a little governance as we mature.

The complexity of today's world begs for some semblance of order and control. If we all knew exactly what we were being governed to, we could just do those things and be assured of success. The same could be said of projects. It would certainly be nice if there were defined procedures for exactly how projects should be run. Set the rules, govern to them, and Voilà! Quality, on-time and on-schedule. From the outside, it sure looks that easy. So does parenting. Parents know differently and so do project managers.

I'm not advocating anarchy in families, project teams, or organizations. I believe in processes and their governance. My point is that it is important to consider the context of the organization when applying governance, and adoption will follow commensurately. Too lenient an approach and the disciplines will not be developed. Too heavy a hand and the spirit will be broken or go underground.

As you develop governance for processes and procedures, take into consideration the maturity of the organization (not necessarily the individual project managers). Is your organization in its infancy, early childhood, pre-pubescence, adolescence or entering adulthood? Models such as the CMMI (Capability Maturity Model Integrated) can help with objectively assessing and measuring this. For most organizations, the existing level of maturity is already known, just not willingly admitted. Children all want to be perceived as older when they are young, until they are required to accept the responsibility that comes with maturity.

There is an old Chinese proverb: Govern a family as you would cook a small fish � very gently. I'm not a fisherman, and I'm a marginal cook, but it sounds like it makes a lot of sense. Most proverbs are founded in common sense. So is good governance. Like water, governance is a powerful tool in moderation, and a potential disaster when there is too much or too little. Both are a natural part of our world, and few have drowned in a small amount of either.

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