I’ve been thinking about governance a lot recently – how and where we make decisions – and specifically
- how we make them robust and trusted
- how we make them fast enough to get stuff done rather than admiring problems
- How we manage the tension between these two things
- How you build in accountability with the right balance of empowerment and scrutiny
Threading through this is the question of participation, which is part of how you make decisions robust and trusted but hard to achieve at pace. Woven through this is a curiosity about how we best identify the things we need to decide collectively and the things which can be left with a few people to sort out.
Governance and decision making is a central part of any operating model and that’s partly why is on my mind. We are working through ideas around organisational design at the moment so that we can reflect the work in Our Plan and bring it to life and we are all keen that we embrace the difference between organisational design – which looks at all of the layers of an operating model – and organisational structure which just moves people around and hopes the other layers follow.
I also think that clear decision making paths are one of the things that make effective matrix and/or multidisciplinary working….work. Where you are deliberately creating spaces outside of the hierarchy to get stuff done you need to be clear on how decisions are made otherwise run the twin risks of ‘loudest voice dominates’ and ‘admiring the problem’.
Earlier on in the work that we did as a leadership team we would talk about ‘spinning’ on an issue or getting stuck. We would be in a discussion and not quite know our way out. As a leadership group we have got better at spotting those moments and working through them – what we now need to do is to scale that to work for the organisation as a whole.
Part of the reason why we have been able to get past those stuck moments is that we have done a lot of work on the feeling part of thinking, feeling and doing (slightly more on that here). We know each well enough – and have the psychological safety now – to call it out when we see it and address the thing under the surface which is causing us to get stuck. I was struck recently though by a piece of work we started with a group outside of our leadership team by how the thinking/doing work is so much harder when you haven’t put the time in on the feeling. Looking back this is a pattern we need to deal with – as the leadership team embrace a different way of working we need an intentional way of bring that to the whole organisation – its not enough for us just to ask people to work differently.
As I type this I am wondering why I was surprised by this.
Moving to looking at some of our ‘outside’ work its been caught in the same trap – us moving into space of working differently without having done the work to establish trust that we will follow through. And here is the next of the many dilemmas – the work doesn’t stop while you build the trust and safety.
My mind returns to governance because clarity of process – and the ability to build trust in that process – is one of the things can create the space to build the trust that is needed to work together in a different way.
As I think about a system of governance – the decision making layer of our operating model – I am thinking my way into it via our three principles:
Adaptive: Lots going on with this one – but two main things
- Making sure we can work iteratively, and experimentally but with discipline and direction (mission roadmaps should help with this)
- Making sure that we can, with data or external context, change our minds about something and take a different direction but at the same time put the lid on decisions and make sure that they stay made
Resilient: This one is about avoiding both single points of failure as well or resting too much power in too few people.
Participative: This is about the right people being part of the process – not about ALL of the people being part of the process. Deciding who the right people are is how we make sure we build inclusivity into our decision making as well as bridging between our operational core and strategic ambitions.
Underpinning all of this needs to be a drumbeat of corporate governance where we are checking in on the health of the system – finance, health and safety, safeguarding, workforce data – a regular pattern of making sure that we know how we are doing as an organisation. I want to add measures around our principles into this – and this all needs to be designed around data and dashboards not around painful reports. This drumbeat is what tells us how fast we can go and makes sure that as we work on changing things that we are not breaking anything important by accidents.
So – where does this leave us??
I see two ‘families’ of decisions – we could call them inside and outside:
- Inside:Corporate health checks and development of our operating model
- Outside:Delivery of our missions and implementation of Our Plan
In the inside group we would have things like our health and safety board, strategic finance and people boards as well as what we are currently calling our Design Authority which is where we are taking organisational shaping decisions. In this family the corporate leadership team meeting is programming and overseeing the decisions that sit in here.
On the outside group we could have different decision making spaces for each of the clusters of missions (more on this here) which specific spaces bringing created around time bounded pieces of work. I think it’s an interesting question as to how we programme and oversee this work and it could be the another aspect to a Design Authority.
The inside and outside work is joined together via the function we have been calling mission control – which is there to plan and programme the work we are doing. Its our answer to the need for a programme management office function (PMO) and is there to really reflect our adaptive principle as we attempt to deliver work iteratively with frequent checkins on prioritisation to reflect what can be charitably be called a dynamic context.
One final thought – uncertainty breeds decisions – or at least the need for them. There are fewer decisions when you know where you are going and even fewer when you know your route and you trust the people on it with you. Organisational culture is at least as important as the decision making system. Attitudes to risk, to learning and to scrutiny are vital if decisions are to move us forward and not paralyse us. And on a final fine thought, scrutiny of all forms is vital in a complex system. Only by being open to questioning and following the data can you build trust – anything else is a leap of faith.