Agility in Governance: The Compelling Need for Agile Governance

Co Authored by Tony Ponton and Phil Gadzinski

Once upon a time, on a cold snowy day, agile came along and the world hasn’t been the same since. 

Geoffrey Moore in Crossing the Chasm quotes that Disruptive Innovation gets us to change our behaviour and the things we might use to solve problems. He positions that there is a repeatable evolution of an adoption going through a specific life cycle and adoption path. From the Early Innovators seeing the novelty and maybe trying to differentiate themselves, to Early Adopters, then we cross that chasm and start seeing the Early Majority adopt the new “thing”, followed by the Late Majority. The laggards kinda still float out back asking why? A rule of thumb, a heuristic, however you get the meaning. 

When it comes to the large scale, organisational level adoption of Agile, we are well and truly in the Late Majority stage. Alistair Cockburn has talked about this; we talk about this when we discuss and give keynote presentations and workshops about agile and where to next for agile.  

Figure: Crossing the chasm curve, from Moore.

However one thing got left behind in the large scale organisational transformation to agile.

When many organisations make the strategic decision they are going to redesign their organisational structure and operating model with the goal of increasing agility, they go all guns blazing into breaking people out of their boundaries into new constraints –  tribes, squads, groups, nations, you name the term for a collection of people organising around a problem to solve for. Sometimes for a customer. Traditional existing ways of getting things done are ripped apart; people are pushed into working with people they don’t know; around work they don’t yet understand; often without the time to come together as a team and design how they want to work. To set their teaming models so they can start doing something useful. We don’t need to name organisations – there are plenty of public examples. We have  been involved in these kinds of transformations directly a number of times – indirectly many more. 

There is, however, an inherent problem with this story, repeated virtually every time, especially if you take your direction from large multinational consultancies selling you their cookie cutter model. Since that’s the same solution, repackaged and sold all over the planet and never addressing the higher order systemic concerns and quite frankly only ever designed for the organisation it came from. Remember the quickest way to bring another organisations problems into yours is to copy someone else’s model. 

We forget about how we are going to manage and govern this new system of work at a level beyond the small team or tribe – the enterprise level. 

Governance is the forgotten element of organisations adopting new operating models that are based on a goal of enabling agility and more adaptable systems of work. When moving to new working methods it’s important to rethink how you govern your new system of work- traditional governance approaches are ineffective and add waste, overhead and create lack of transparency. They devalue trust. Add the current paradigm of every team being distributed, or at least partly remote for the foreseeable future, things need to change when we adopt agile working methods. You can’t be agile and overlay the same existing governance patterns and norms that didn’t really work before; they will only stifle your transformation.

You need Agile Governance!

What do we mean by Agile Governance?

The evolution to Agile Governance starts with what Governance is trying to achieve. Governance can be defined for the purpose of agile as how an organisation makes its decisions; or what systems, culture, norms, behaviours and structures are in place that lead to decisions and outcomes. These generally evolve naturally and in response to problems to be solved over time, as an organisation goes through its own life cycle. Often large organisations attempt Business_Transformation efforts to change these underlying variables — many do not purposefully address their governance system as an area of concern, and the system ends up reverting to what it was prior to the transformation effort.

Agile Governance applies the values and principles of agile as first described in the Agile Manifesto to the whole of the organisation and how it establishes the mechanisms and constraints by which it can design, execute and control its strategies in an ongoing adaptive fashion

Source: Gadzinski and Ponton 2020 

So having described Agile Governance, the obvious question is how do you go about putting this in place? As we stated earlier, adding it to your existing governance mechanisms and holding on to those traditional large governance methods (steering committees, change advisory boards, etc..) which ends up creating a hybrid solution that negates any benefits your agility may have brought you is not the solution. Neither is implementing an instant prefab Agile solution that promises yours will be successful because those organisations were. As they say, always check the box for the small print or in this case, check to see how successful the organisations that have tried it have been. 

Those organisations that have been successful have done so by using cognisant , considered and purposeful design whilst considering their organisational context, with a clear understanding that what got them to where they are now will not get them to where they want to go given the VUCA environment that we now live in. 

As we progress this series of blogs Phil and I will continue to dive deeper into Agile Governance.