The secret to understanding governance

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I’m very tempted to start this post like a dodgy wealth-guru infomercial. You know the ones with lots of imagery of people living the dream of financial freedom. I am thinking a montage of a resort, a large yacht anchored in a topical bay, carving up the water with a jet-ski and then a shot of me standing next to my Ferrari, champagne in hand, with Megan Fox on my arm. My message would be that for a “small” fee of $10,000, you too could learn the secrets to your financial freedom in an intimate, exclusive but “intensive” weekend workshop. Just you and the 15,000 other people that pack into the convention hall :-)

Alas, we both know that this is never going to happen but this post may have a little of that feeling to it. I have titled it “The secret to understanding governance”, because I think there is a way to understand governance that will help you, your colleagues and your team members significantly. Like all good “wealth guru” infomercials, I’m going to give you some hints and I’m kind of hoping that you will then be interested in attending a workshop to find out the rest.

The one difference between the wealth guru and me, though, is that I will never have Megan Fox hanging off my arm, and I am actually going to tell you something useful in this post.

So, what is this big “secret”, anyway?

Definitions definitions definitions

One thing that we all tend to get suckered into doing at times is feeling the urge to define “stuff”. Academics do it all the time. I’ve read countless papers where the authors start out with a ten page examination of all the past definitions of their given topic, before proceeding to tell you why those definitions are inadequate in some way, followed by their own revised definitions. They spend the rest of their essays justifying why their definitions are more correct than their predecessors.

Defining stuff is a time consuming and tiring exercise. Since we live in a world of constant change there will always be new influences which shape and frame perceptions. Therefore, the definition that you spent so much effort on coming up with is redefined by the next academic or blogger who follows the path that you took. Sometimes a whole new word is invented, or an existing word is suddenly used in a new context and the whole cycle starts all over again.

I once explained the philosophical and process aspects of Agile/Scrum to a seriously experienced project manager. This was a fellow who was the PM when skyscrapers were erected. He listened carefully to my explanation, sat back and said “I’ve been doing that for 30 years. There’s nothing new there”. I also found a similar observation in “The Small Business Guerrilla Guide to Six Sigma” by Jay Arthur.

Over the years, I’ve had a chance to learn and study just about every “brand name” systematic improvement methodology. Guess what…they are all pretty much the same. To appear different, consultants have changed:
– the name to Six Sigma (from Total Quality Management)
– the acronyms to confuse the unwary (PDCA to DMAIC)
– the number of tools required for success
– the number of steps in the process (5 to 14 steps)
– the key tools are the same
– the process for using the tools is the same
– and the results are identical assuming you can figure out how to use the wide range of tools and processes

In my opinion, defining things to the nth degree is a zero sum game. Often you confuse the issue more than you clarify it because in your attempts to explain something, you incorporate new words that you then have to explain.

Some ROI Wisdom

Several years ago I was attending a job interview for a promotion and the topic of return on investment came up. I had made the point that most things could be quantified and one of the interviewers fired back “Well tell me how you measure quality?”

That was a curveball that I wasn’t expecting, and I didn’t have an answer (and never got the job either).

Some time later, I read a terrific book by Douglas Hubbard on measurement and return on investment called “How To Measure Anything”. It armed me with some new kung-fu skills and also gave me the perfect comeback answer that I sorely needed during that interview. The question “How do you measure quality?” actually makes very little sense to ask. The reason is quite simple. “Quality is not what you measure. It is the effect it has on something that you measure”.

It is very easy to illustrate the logic behind this important point. Undertaking a quality initiative costs time, money and resources. You are only spending that money and investing those resources because you believe that undertaking this quality initiative will make a positive difference in some way. Otherwise, why bother? If you do not believe that it will make a positive difference, why throw money away?

So, if asked “How do you measure quality?”, you can answer by asking questions back, along the lines of:

  • “What does improved quality look like to you?”
  • “What is the effect of quality?”
  • “How do you know your quality initiative is working?”

The answers to these questions tend to start with “increased this” or “decreased that”. It now should be abundantly clear why asking “How do you measure quality?” actually makes no sense. In fact it is completely the wrong question to ask. Instead, by re-framing the question slightly, you suddenly have answers that can be quantified using the techniques that I detailed in my “Learn to speak to your CFO” series and provided in my free SharePoint ROI modelling spreadsheet.

This same logic applies to other words that are better understood by examining their effect, rather than trying to (re)define them. Examples:

  • Security
  • Flexibility
  • Collaboration
  • Resilience
  • Wellbeing

All of these share the same characteristic as “governance” in that they are easily understood by the effect they have, but harder to define in a universal way.

The secret to understanding governance

The really silly thing about all this is that I did a talk on SharePoint ROI at the Best Practice Conference in Feb 09. In that talk, I explained the above chain of logic and made the point that the way to find measurable success factors with anything that seems “unquantifiable” is to ask the “what will it look like if we do this?” type question. I used this logic to come up with measurable key performance indicators that enabled me to simulate the future financial return (internal rate of return and net present value) of a large SharePoint investment for a mid sized organisation (slide deck and spreadsheet can be downloaded here).

But despite writing several articles and speaking on this topic, the ROI stuff was one of several clouds of “stuff” that was floating around my brain. SharePoint governance was also floating in one of those clouds too, as well as broader governance in a planning and sustainability context. It took a casual comment from Bjørn Furuknap that suddenly gave me one of those wonderful bolts of inspiration and clarify, where these disparate clouds of thought suddenly coalesced and I made a significant breakthrough in my understanding.

Define “governance” in any way you want. I really don’t care – so long as you understand the difference it makes *for you* and you ask the same question of your other stakeholders and participants. Put aside the need to define governance for a while, and instead view “governance” as a means to attain a desirable future state. Agree with each-other on what that state is going to look like. Now tell me the differences between where you are now and that desirable future state.

By asking the question this way, you not only stimulate much more meaningful debate, you will have a much better understanding of everybody else’s frame of reference and the emphasis that they place on various aspects of that difference. The “definition” of governance that you are trying to find will start to suggest itself through those differences between the current and desired state. At the end of the day, that is what really matters.

Instead of reading a methodology like COBiT or ITIL, or following what people like me, Joel, Robert Bogue, Andrew Woodward, Dux Sy and Ruven Gotz say, look at your own needs as an individual, a team and then an organisation. Determine where you want to be, include IT and non IT views and then start to think about what you need to do to get to your desired state.

Congratulations, you’re now officially “governing”. Wasn’t that hard, was it? :-)

Best practices versus worst practices

This same “secret” to understanding governance also provides the answer to why experts disagree on what is a “best practice”. I sometimes will read a “best practice” and think to myself “No way, that would never work”. Yet, although it doesn’t work for me, I rarely come away thinking the person making the recommendation is actually wrong. When you understand that the “best practice” made a positive difference, and it moved the organisation further along the road from the undesired present state toward the desired future state, then it is perfectly clear why one man’s best practice is another man’s worst practice. No matter what you did, you moved forward – and that is a good thing.

Furthermore, if you agree with the notion that the “best” solution to a problem is the one that has the most shared commitment among participants to seeing it through, then I argue that a perceived “worst practice” with deep commitment and buy-in among stakeholders will deliver a better solution than a “best practice” with poor buy-in and commitment among stakeholders.

Want to argue that point with me? (I’ve got more ammo than this!) Then you can spend 3 days doing that if you want!

…for a small fee :-)

My intent with this post was to try and lift some of the fog and confusion that surrounds this nebulous thing called governance by suggesting that defining it to the nth degree is not the way forward. “Best and worst” practices? Both are commonly context and culture dependant. Instead, your (multidisciplinary) team needs to agree on and understand your desired future state and where you are now. By starting with the end in mind you will be able to collectively determine what processes, tools and methods to use to get to that place.

The philosophical approaches that I have described in this article are just the tip of the iceberg in relation to the work that I have been doing with Andrew Woodward, Dux Sy and Ruven Gotz for the planned “Governance Mentoring Workshop”, to run for 3 days prior to the August Best Practices Conference. This workshop will be unlike any other SharePoint governance training that is currently in existence and much of the material is completely original and not borrowed from any of the traditional SharePoint governance material that exists today.

Finally, to go back to infomercial mode…

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Thanks for reading

Paul Culmsee

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