Agility in Governance: What is Agile Governance trying to achieve?

Co Authored by Tony Ponton and Phil Gadzinski

Having talked about what “Agile Governance” is and why we need it, we thought it best to discuss what we are trying to achieve when we change our system of assuring work. The following quote from Kent Beck really describes it well:

 Silence is the sound of risk piling up” (Kent Beck Extreme Programming Explained).

Not knowing what is truly occurring, where the work gets done, creates and invites risk. Delays in elevating information increases risk. To solidify that point, let’s take the example that we make 35,000 decisions a day (many internet sources quote that number). Whether that number is correct or not, leaders and teams are making many, many decisions a day per person. Even if we significantly reduce this lets say for argument’s sake individuals in teams are making up to 10 directional impacting decisions every day; 5 days a week; 46 weeks per year. Per person. That’s 2,300 potentially wrong decisions every year per person – compounded. 

Each wrong decision increases the misalignment on top of the previous incorrect decision. If the information flow is truncated or delayed then the error rate of decisions that are based on gut feel, the highest paid person’s opinion, or pure guess become exponential. We need to better manage that risk.

Creative work and technology work, as we know, is often ‘hidden’ work. It’s not physical manufacturing work – there is an invisible production line. Applying the ideas of Taylorism to software was always wrong – even the creator  of “waterfall”, Winston Royce in 1974 said the same. Agile methods are about elevating and sharing the work with short feedback loops to allow faster more informed decision making. Then we can identify wrong decisions and course correct – fast. The result? Effectiveness and building the right thing, minimising waste, and increasing pace of delivery.

Software is a social problem, not a coding or technology problem – agilists have decoded the nature of work through the agile manifesto and movement. Applying industrial type governance doesn’t fit this software, knowledge work or creative problem space. We want mastery, we want craftsmanship. Given this environment we have a greater need for transparency – not just the pace of the work, however, the very nature of the work.

Monthly status reports are virtually useless to directionally guide teams in a VUCA world. They are for upwards management and status, ego and self preservation, not true risk management and progress of the work. We have all heard of the watermelon project right? (Everything is green until suddenly it’s not, just like a watermelon that gets dropped it all goes red and eventually hits the proverbial fan resulting in code brown where large management  interventions have to be made to resolve the issues.) We have all sat in meetings with 190 page steering committee packs no one reads, reviewing risks and mitigants no one bothers to check.The clear evidence of constant failures in large scale programs attest to that. The Recent 2019 Standish Chaos Report shows that agile projects are 2x more likely to succeed – and ⅓ less likely to fail. So why do we still govern with traditional methods?

If we are adopting agile more, succeeding more, delivering at greater pace and breaking down large scale programs to small batch delivery, we require a greater more real time and dynamic need for clarity and system based information – we need faster feedback in risk and compliance. Seek controls that match the way you work (Joanne Molesky, Moving Fast with Defined Constraints  – Linked in Learning). We need to change the conversation around risk and governance to bring it into the 21st century to support further expanding agile ways of working – not constraining them.

Instead of applying heavy legacy non suitable governance models, we want to apply lightweight, dynamic, open and flexible models that also adapt to change – start small, stretch to fit the problems rather than hit everything with a sledge hammer. When you have a hammer everything looks like a nail – the metaphor of Maslow’s Hammer comes to mind. The law of the golden hammer is a cognitive bias that involves an over-reliance on a familiar tool. As Abraham Maslow said in 1966, 

“I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” 

Traditional Governance models are kind of the same thing, we just try and hit everything with it. Even when it’s not working, the general thought applied is that people are at fault, not the process. Therefore, we need more governance. 

How do we stop governance being a hammer looking for nails? 

After twenty years of working in agile, non-agile and transitional organisations, we have distilled what agile governance is into a key metapattern and four archetypes we believe are needed to effectively govern any modern system of work – whether we use agile methods in the work or not. 



In the spirit of symbolism we see them as the symbol of a “Guiding Hand if you like, “Four fingers and the thumb to lead and enable them”. In the next post we will talk to the first of the Fingers  – “Organisational Transparency”.