Lean Governance – An Oxymoron or Essential Strategy?

The term “Lean Governance” has a strange sound to it, doesn’t it? It feels like one of those terms that contradict itself – an oxymoron – similar to “giant shrimp”, “definitely maybe” or “act naturally”. Oxymorons are interesting because they highlight two words that are possess opposite meaning, yet somewhat makes sense when you put them together. In this case, the concept of “Lean Governance” will seem like an impossibility to those of us who have spent time working in organizations that operate with rigid processes and procedures that do not allow room for deviation.

After working with many highly-bureaucracy business organizations over the span of my career, I have realized that most large businesses require structure to survive and operate in a methodical manner. Lean GovernanceQuite often, these structures inadvertently develop inefficiencies due to unplanned growth and evolution over time, which result in waste and potential chaos that compromises the organization’s overall performance. Within the lean-Agile world, however, I propose that this concept can exist, and it may actually add tremendous value to your organization if deployed effectively.

Is it possible to achieve a delicate balance between structure and agility?

Let’s explore a few possible ideas to build and operate a lean governance structure to see if this is possible for your situation.

    1. Motivate people to do the “right thing” – Governance is usually implemented to shape behavior; by reinforcing good behavior and discouraging (or punishing) undesirable behavior, organizations generally try to steer and guide its employees towards the end objectives. This can take various forms, but the end desire is usually very similar: higher performance in terms of market share and/or revenue. If we can somehow encourage people to focus on the right priorities and staying true to the core values within the guidelines, a heavy, bureaucratic organization may not be needed.

    2. Streamline communication and collaboration – Most people want to do good work because it provides intangible satisfaction. Hence, as leaders, we need to find the best way to define minimal processes and get out of our people’s way. This is the best way to optimize the flow of value and reduce the need to impose strict rules.

    3. Encourage transparency – Sometimes we, as Agile change leaders, assume that our people prefer transparency. The fact is that many people are not comfortable being put in the spotlight for a number of reasons; they may not yet possess the confidence or psychological safety to be successful in that position. Establishing a foundation of trust will be an essential to take if we feel that the people need this level of support prior to trying new ideas or taking risks to think and behave more creatively.

    4. Mitigate risks – Many governance bodies within an organization, such as Center of Excellence or a Project Management Office, slowly evolve into an auditing function that offer little value other than identifying faults and lack of compliance for deliverables or artifacts within an organization. While this approach may reveal shortcomings, the punitive approach may not necessarily improve compliance. Taking a risk-focused approach, a governing body can significantly improve the net benefit by developing risk response strategies for known uncertainties, which should enhance the probability of project success.

In closing, “governance” does not necessarily need to be synonymous with “red tape”; if deployed in a lean manner, governance can provide an effective balancing mechanism to ensure that your Agile transformation initiative does not end up in a state of disarray!

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Eugene Lai
Eugene Lai