Joe Ales & Jason West
Season 2: Episode 11 – Governance and Control
Jason West: Welcome to the Underscore Transformation Podcast. My name’s Jason West.
Joe Ales: And my name’s Joe Ales.
Jason West: And together, we’re the founders of Underscore. In season two, we’re focusing on implementation; the challenges that surround making changes to policies, processes and team structures. If you’d like to know more about Scoping a Transformation programme, please take a listen to season one.
Now this is the last of our ten critical success factors in the build phase of transformation. Today we’re going to discuss the challenges and pitfalls that surround program governance and control during the build phase. A good proportion of effective governance is rooted in the design of your governance structure. We covered governance design in our previous season on scoping, so please listen to episode seven of season one for further information on the key governance roles and decision making bodies, the speed and quality decisions required, and the costs of indecision, delay, reversal and rework.
The design of your governance structure is one thing, that we covered previously. Ensuring that you make the right decisions at the right time that’s another story. Successful governance requires having the right people in the right roles, meeting regularly, reviewing the right information and being empowered to make decisions quickly. So, Joe what’s the best way of making sure this happens?
Joe Ales: Well Jason, unsurprisingly it comes down to people. We talked about the importance of everyone working on the program to have documented role descriptions way back in episode one. And this is equally true for those in governance roles. You also need to have terms of reference well documented for each of the decision making groups within your structure.
Jason West: What would typically being in those terms of reference?
Joe Ales: The purpose of each of the groups, their accountabilities, responsibilities or the authority they have to make decisions is equally important. The scope; what are they there to cover? And being careful that you don’t overlay scope of decisions across different groups.
Then, what’s the escalation paths? If in one governance structure, one individual or group of individuals feel really strongly about something, how did they escalated to ensure it gets escalated project board, the exec steerco etc. And then some simple logistics around the meeting purpose, and their frequency. Regular information is going to be reviewed by what groups in the governance structure? What records are to be kept etc.?
And then, of course, unfortunately for a lot of programs there’s a lot of reporting that needs to be done.
Jason West: And actually documenting this stuff ahead of time.
Joe Ales: Absolutely, you don’t want to have a program manager or transformation lead should be winging this on the fly. It needs to be properly discussed ahead of time, properly planned with a set of reviews, with perhaps even exec sponsor ahead of it going into the next steerco. So, there’s an awful lot of stakeholder management and aligning mindsets along the way.
This is not just about getting people in the room and expecting lots and lots of decisions to be made in a room, there’s an awful lot that goes on outside these formal meetings. But nonetheless the formal meetings are really important to bring key decisions or key points in a program to a head.
So, the other thing we also need to think about is, what’s the capability and motivation of the people that you place in these various decision making bodies? Just to remind ourselves of who these are: you’ve obviously got the process owners, you’ve got your designed authority, you’ve got your operational steering committee, and you’ve got your exec steering committee. These are the four key groups. You may have other ones, maybe there might be a technology one, or an integrations one. But these four are the groups that are going to govern your program.
In previous episodes we also talked about the risks of putting enthusiastic amateurs into key roles in the program, and this is again true for people making decisions within the governance structure. It’s the role of the sponsor, really, to identify any skills or knowledge gaps in various committees, and maybe put steps in place to close these gaps before programs get into full swing. And we talk a lot about formal training, coaching, mentoring for those in these governance structures, because these individuals are playing an instrumental role in the program, so they need to be equipped with the skills and capability to help steer in whatever governance structure or governance the body sit in.
Jason West: Yeah, I think that’s where actually documenting the role profiles, ahead of appointing people into these kind of key governance roles, comes in really useful, because it gives that framework to be able to spot any gaps early and put those right interventions in place, whether that’s coaching or mentoring or formal training whatever it is. And there often are gaps, because you tend to be pulling people out of operational roles to fulfil these new program or project roles, so naturally there are gaps. It tends to be less so at the more senior level, at the exec steerco, because typically people have got experience of sponsoring or acting at the senior executive level.
Joe Ales: But you know, the sponsor sometimes needs a little bit of coaching, because they’re now guiding a program that they’ve probably not done before. Transformation projects don’t get done every year, like we’ve talked about before, it’s probably once or twice in a professional career of a sponsor. So they really need to be equipped to challenge the program manager, the transformation lead, even those on the on the exec steering committee, about aspects of the project. They need to be equipped with the skills and capability.
Jason West: Yes, and really addressing that right up front as early as you possibly can; identify where gaps are, actually put steps in place to fill them.
But I think another aspect of it, is around the thinking styles of the individuals involved, and making sure that you’ve got a real diversity of thinking styles in your different decision making bodies. Because in large parts, transformation is a problem solving process and the real challenge with this is that some of the problems are puzzles and some are mysteries.
So, please bear with me here because I think it’s an important point to raise. Gregory Treverton wrote an article in 2007, which you can find The Smithsonian Magazine online, that describes this difference between puzzles and mysteries, and and how you need to approach them because it is different.
I’ll read you a quote from the article: “puzzles can be solved. They have answers, but a mystery offers no such comfort. It poses a question that has no definitive answer, because the answer is contingent. It depends on a future interaction of many factors; known and unknown. So, a mystery cannot be answered it can only be framed, and by identifying the critical factors and applying some sense of how they have interacted in the past, and might interact in the future. A mystery, therefore, is an attempt to define ambiguities.”
So that’s the quote, let me just unpack that a bit more going, because there are some interesting things going on there. Another really interesting writer, Malcolm Gladwell, expanded on this in an article in the New Yorker called Open Secrets. Have a Google, it’s a great article. But boiling down his great work to really simple idea: the whereabouts of a Osama Bin Laden was a puzzle with a definitive answer that was, at the time – 2007 – unsolved, because US intelligence didn’t have enough information. They just needed to gather information to solve it.
In contrast, another problem at the time was, what should happen in Iraq after Saddam Hussein was removed? That was a mystery. There wasn’t a simple, factual answer. Mysteries required judgments and assessments of uncertainty, and the hard part of it was not a lack of information, but actually there was too much information. So, the CIA had a position on post war Iraq, so did the Pentagon, and the State Department, Colin Powell and Dick Channey, as did everybody, commentators the world over, whether it was Fox News, MSNBC or whoever. Trying to find your way through that is really quite difficult. It’s not a case of just uncovering information and finding the answer, there is actually just a lot of noise in the system.
Brining it right up to date; finding a vaccine for the novel coronavirus is a puzzle that will ultimately be solved. But when and how quickly to lift lockdown conditions, well that’s a mystery, and there’s so many different contingent parts to it, that actually there’s no one simple answer. And you can’t know it all at the beginning.
Joe Ales: This is really, really interesting, but what does it actually have to do with program governance?
Jason West: OK, so within your governance bodies, you need to have a bit of a mix people with these different problem solving approaches. Because they are different. So some people have a real natural focus on uncovering new information to solve puzzles, and really digging into the absolute detail and are like a dog with a bone; that kind of ‘ta-da, we’ve solved the puzzle.’
But you also need people that have got a focus on the bigger picture, and are picking out the signal amongst the noise of all this different information, that flows through the governance of your program. And a lot of that’s about framing what’s going on, and being able to spot the risks, and how to deal with that as part of uncovering this this kind of mysterious destination that you have. Because it’s not always very clear when you start on these programs.
So, there’s that slight dichotomy between people looking at the big picture, and others really focused on the detail and practicalities.
Joe Ales: So, transformation is a mixture of puzzle and mystery.
Jason West: Yes, absolutely. And in terms of those personality traits, there are other aspects to this, and you need to look for the balance in your governance structures. So, you need to have a bit of a balance between introverts and extroverts; they bring complementary strengths when taking on and processing information. And you need to be careful about how you manage that interaction between introverts and extroverts, and give introverts enough time to take on information and make sure the extroverts don’t shout everything down and become the only voice heard. And the usual interplay you tend to get when people skew in one direction more than another. But a lot of that gap between people is about how they process information that they have from the world.
Likewise, having a balance of people that are more people focused and others who are more outcome and objective focused. And that can be a bit of a challenge, more at the senior end, at the executive level, because in western society we do tend to promote people who are more outcome focused than those who are peopled focused. So that can be a challenge in the more senior committees, but that tends to be at exec level.
But you’d also expect that a successful program will have a lot of people who are very disciplined driven. These are people who are always on time for meetings, they love planning, they like clear objectives, they’re really ordered, and they work best in a structured environment. And unsurprisingly we’ve spent quite a bit of time on these podcast talking about those types of traits and issues, and things that you just need to do. But that shouldn’t be at the expense of people who are more ‘inspiration driven.’ These are people who prefer to see how things emerge, don’t like to be tied down too early to any given solution, and like to keep their options open until the deadline emerges, and that deadline then gives me lots of energy and off they go and start doing stuff. But they are rarely on time for meetings, if people are really on that inspiration driven end of spectrum, they rely a lot on gut instinct to make decisions, and they’re not afraid to bend the rules to achieve something really unique and interesting.
So, if you have everybody too much in one direction of the spectrum on your decision making bodies, and in your program team, you can get into difficulties with that. Having that real mix allows you to get the best possible outcome from your transformation.
Joe Ales: Yeah, you’re right Jason, and it’s one of the areas that is so often overlooked when building programme teams, governance teams. It’s the whole diversity of thought. And we talked before about having multi functional program structures, having people from different functions being part of the program.
Jason West: Yep, and different business units as well, diversity in the areas of the business.
Joe Ales: Exactly, and this is another angle of diversity of thinking, and diversity of behaviour that needs to be incorporated into your program structure.
It can be a little bit too easy sometimes to populate teams with people who all think alike. And you end up with ‘group think’ solution designs that really only work for the people like ‘us.’ So that diversity of thought is really, really important and again, if you have solution designs that only work for people like us, risks can go underestimated or sometimes completely overlooked, because you don’t have those people that are incredibly interested in the detail. If you’ve only got, like you just outline just second ago, people who are ‘inspirational’ and they turn up for meetings late every time –
Jason West: I don’t know anyone like that [LAUHS].
Joe Ales: No, of course we don’t know anyone like [LAUGHS], that are Blue Sky thinkers, you might perhaps worry that a lot of the detail is going to go unnoticed. It is really, really useful then, to apply psychometric tools for analysing individuals, and team personality and the characteristics of the team. Just making sure that you’ve got a good balance of behaviour and thinking, in among the various teams.
And I think at some point, we will absolutely get Lucy Finney, our Head of Leadership Development to talk to us about how to best deploy these tools for building high performing teams, in a future episode.
Jason West: Yeah, it’s great idea, as it is important not just for program and governance teams, but it‘s got an application across any type of team, so definitely worth getting Lucy to provide some insight as she’s got loads experience that she could share, and there’s lots of great tools out there. What I described there was actually Lumina‘s tool largely. But they are all based on similar principles; it’s the Big 5, Jungian, personality traits. But we‘ll get Lucy in to talk about that properly, rather than my hackneyed approach to it.
So, we’ve put together our diverse governance committees. We’ve defined their terms of reference. We’re all up and running. What do program sponsors need to keep a look out for when it comes to the behaviours of these various steering committees?
Joe Ales: They need to keep an eye out on the level of constructive challenge that’s going on within the various steering committees. Are people challenging solutions with the aim of making things better, aligned to the strategic programme or objective? Or are they finding reasons for things to remain the same? Maybe protecting empires or empire building; there’s all sort of things like that that you’ve got to be sort of mindful of.
They may be thinking that “You streamlining a process or automating a process, will mean my function or my teams in my functional areas are going to be impacted by this. I don’t necessarily like to deal with that change.” So, there is an awful lot of that you need to be mindful of; the transformation lead absolutely needs to be on top of it, and so does the sponsor.
Something else they need to look at, is how quickly our solution designs are making their way through the various governance reviews. Are solution designs getting stuck at particular steering committees? If so, where? It may be the operational steering committee, for instance, where actually there is reluctance for people to want to change, so they are challenging every decision, every change to process, to policy etc., because they are change resistant.
Jason West: Yes, watch out for the speed with which things are moving, or not moving, through those different committees, whether it’s the operational design, exec steerco or whatever.
Joe Ales: And the exec steerco should expect decisions not made by the exec steering committee, even if it’s “we’ve made this major decision, at the operational steering committee and this is the impact it will have on our business. So, exec steerco, is this is something that you are you comfortable with? It’s something you need to approve.”
I wouldn’t suggest everything goes up to the executive committee level for approval, but there are some fundamental decisions that get made at a program level, that are high impact, and those need to be aired and expressed during those exec steering committees. So if the executive committee is not seeing any of that, then the exec steerco should be a little bit concerned.
[INTERMISSION: You’re listening to the Underscore Transformation Podcast. For more practical guidance on business transformation, you can download our free transformation checklist. Visit our website, underscore-group.com/insights.]
Jason West: So, if you’re seeing stuff that’s getting stuck, and it’s not progressing through, what are the underlying factors that could be causing that?
Joe Ales: Often it’s issues with design. You may need to address the solution design capability of the process owners, for instance. Again you’re asking operational people to be almost engineering new ways of working, and some of these individuals may not be capable of doing that. Again, we’re going back to training, the capability point that we made earlier. Are these individuals applying design principles to the way they’re designing processes and their role? I think it could be a combination of things, but that’s probably one area to look at.
Jason West: Yeah, it could be to do that with the fact that maybe you haven’t selected the right technology, and it’s got technical limitations.
Joe Ales: Absolutely, so it’s not uncommon for you to set out a whole strategic objectives, that you’re not going to deliver because the technology platform that you’ve got in front of you, isn’t going to enable you to do that. Again, if the design authority or steering committee is being overly challenged at the design principles stage, are they being set correctly, or are all committee members sufficiently bought into the overall vision and the need to change? That something to think about as well.
Jason West: Yes, and again, getting that scoping right and making sure that people are sufficiently bought in, and that you do have the design principles, and this vision that people actually recognise and are excited about.
Joe Ales: Yeah, yeah, and have those at the forefront of every meeting, almost there as a reminder of what we’re trying to achieve. We’re bringing this decision to you because it relates to this particular strategic objective, or it relates to this design principle. Something that we often see within Software–as–a-Service transformation programme, and what enables transformation programmes is keeping things simple. Simple design: try to use as much out of the box functionality as possible. If you’re coming up with an overly engineered process, that almost achieved in that new technology what you do today, then you have to be asking difficult questions of those process owners, the design authority, and a transformation lead, and programme manager for that matter.
Jason West: So, that’s some of the causes of why things might gets stuck. But, on the other hand, there’s the other side to it isn’t there, of how quickly everything is just getting nodded through. That can also be a problem, can’t it.
Joe Ales: Yeah, absolutely. That means that the decisions have not being challenged enough, perhaps, by the various governance bodies. But the level of detail hasn’t, perhaps, been looked at; that diverse thinking hasn’t been applied, some of the designs haven’t really been tested thoroughly enough. So, if you are starting off on a project and you just see a whole bunch of decisions quickly rise up to you as a program sponsor, you need to go “hang on a minute, who’s checked this? Who validated this? Have we made sure that it’s been tested the design thinking has been tested across other functional areas of our business? Are we sure this is not going to break something further down the line?” So have an inquisitive mind, a curious mind. But again, it‘s not about overly challenging, it is about making sure that you’re challenging the right way, because it can be quite disheartening if as a program manager you feel that you’re going into battle each time. It’s not about that. It’s not about creating the resistance. It’s about watching out, like we talked about before, and what are the signs that make you go “hang on a minute.”
Jason West: So, if a sponsor or a transformation lead see some of this slightly worrying behaviour, or potential risk areas, what should they do?
Joe Ales: They need to go and speak to people. Meet individuals of your steering committee and make sure they’re comfortable challenging solutions that are forward for review. You may find that process owners are just hitting it out of the park.
Jason West: Yeah, that’s fine: they’ve just designed some great stuff and we’ve reviewed it, it’s fantastic it’s going to be great.
Joe Ales: Yes, but as a sponsor I’d want to validate that However, you also may find that people are reluctant to speak up during committee meetings, and feel they’re not sufficiently empowered to make decisions. They’re almost fearful of challenging, so you need to create that openness environment as well.
Jason West: You can often see that with certain types of programme manager that come in; those who are just focused, absolutely, on hitting a deadline, no matter what. And they’re just driving stuff through and then not allowing sufficient time for people to challenge. Or people begin to rely on this big expert from outside who’s done this stuff is a million times.
Joe Ales: Absolutely, and actually they are purposely avoiding those difficult conversations with the aim of just getting stuff over the line. As a program sponsored, you need to also be mindful of that, and be aware of that, and also as a transformation lead. Many transformation leads wouldn’t have done this in the past, they’ve not had the experience. So, the transformation sponsor, as well as a transformation lead, need to be given the tools and capabilities to lead these programs through their life cycle. And, you’re right, sometimes if you bring in programme manager that’s purely focused on hitting timelines, and misses the bigger picture then you’re in no end of trouble. You’re really required to have work done on whole team dynamic of the committee as well; between the programme team, the operational steering committee, between operational and executive committees. Or you simply just need to find more naturally disagreeable people who will not fail to point out what could be done better.
Jason West: Yeah and, honestly, reluctance to speak out isn’t something that you would normally see within your exec steering committee, is it.
Joe Ales: No.
Jason West: No, they’re pretty happy to tell you what they think.
Joe Ales: Exactly, they’re quite proud actually. It’s sometimes quite challenging to shut them up [LAUGHS].
Jason West: Yes; that tends not to be the issue with the exec steering committee. The issues that you see, at that level is really around are people showing up? That’s the real warning sign there; if people aren’t turning up to these exec steering committees, it tends to point to issues with your scoping phase. You didn’t do sufficient work on your business case, getting people bought into it. The sponsor, perhaps, hasn’t done enough around building that willing coalition of execs to really make this happen and embed this really important change.
Joe Ales: Yes, and as a result those individuals don’t feel it’s important to them; “what’s in it for me?” So, you’re absolutely right, if we’re seeing lack of attendance, then you have to seriously question why that is.
Jason West: And it could be because something external has come along. I mean, crikey, right now there are transformation programmes the world over right now that have just stopped, because there’s a more pressing issue.
Joe Ales: Absolutely, but that shouldn’t be persistent. Non-attendance in one these meetings shouldn’t be happening every week and they shouldn’t be happening at key stages of a programme.
Jason West: Yeah, so, have you got your cadence right? But in terms of that attendance it has to be the programme sponsored that’s the individual who is going to go and have these conversations with the members of the exec steering co. It’s just not a conversation the transformation lead, or a programme manager, should ever be having, that’s just not their role.
Joe Ales: No, no, no. Absolutely not. But a program manager can help by ensuring that there is regular drum beat of meetings. They should bring their experience of other programs to ensure that the governance meetings are held at appropriate intervals for decisions at hand right. They need to make sure that review materials, for instance, are sent ahead of time, and they come prepared to answer detailed questions about the health of the program.
The transformation lead, on the other hand, is going to play an active role in these meetings, and they should be the ones leading presentations, for example.
Jason West: That doesn’t always happen, does it.
Joe Ales: No, they become a bit reliant on the programme manager. And it ends up with the program manager that’s leading the transformation almost.
And again, the transformation lead has got to come and to be prepared to defend solution designs that have come through the various other governance bodies etc., and programme delivery decisions. Equally, they need to know, as well, when to take steering input from members of the committee. This is not going in to fight people; it’s making sure that you’re leveraging the knowledge of people in a room, and the expertise that people in the room have, and take steer from them. It’s really important. These governance meetings should not be something to fear, they should be something to look forward to.
You’re going into these meetings, taking the time with very experienced individuals and expensive individuals, so make good use of their time to help steer your program in the right way.
And let’s be honest, these are senior individuals, so exchanges within the exec steering committee will be robust, and they should be robust. So, it’s important that your transformation lead is politically savvy to be able to think on their feet too. Again, as a program sponsor, if you’re looking to appoint a transformation lead into this role, then think through what you’re going to put that individual through. They are going to be facing members of the exec, and they are going to be challenged, so they’ve got to have that ability to think on that their feet, to be agile.
Jason West: And that’s one thing, when things are going well. But you need to be confident that you can put them in front of exec members when things are really not going well, and they can handle that pressure, and represent you and your function well in front of those execs, and not crumble, frankly. And we’ve seen that happen in the past, sadly.
Joe Ales: Yeah, yeah, and it can destroy someone’s career.
The other thing the transformation lead needs to be, is involved in the detail. When they’re being asked difficult questions from those in the exec steering committee, if they don’t know the detail and they’re overly reliant on a program manager, this could be really concerning for the programme sponsor.
Jason West: Yes, exactly. Because the last thing you want is for people to lose confidence in an individual, and therefore the program. And no one wants those difficult conversation, so make sure you think through the individual that you put into that role. Because, as you say Joe, it will make or break their career.
So, just stepping out of that meeting a little bit, we touched on previously these client–side advisors, when we talked about suppliers a few weeks back. I think it’s worth just a quick recap seeing as we’re talking about governance, where client–side advisors are best used, and anywhere you shouldn’t use them in the governance structure.
Joe Ales: Yeah; we’ve found that they are best used in two ways. Firstly: advising design teams, either working directly with process owners for instance, or supporting the transformation lead at the design authority level. They’ve been there, they’ve done it, they know where the pitfalls are, right. So, they can identify quickly if some of the designs that you’re coming up with going to give you problems in A, B&C, so they can play a really pivotal role in these groups.
Secondly: it’s providing challenge and technical knowledge at the exec steering committee level. Especially if the exec team lack hands on experience of new piece of technology that you’re implementing. It’s almost like a voice of reason in a room where the program managers, or transformation lead, might be overly enthusiastic, overly optimistic about what’s being done at the program level, and are not really aware of some of those pitfalls that are coming down the line, around some of the decisions that might be made.
We found that actually adding client–side advisers into an operational steering committee level is perhaps less useful. The purpose of this body is to validate that the solution designs are fit for purpose, to meet the business needs, and the best people to make a judgement are the operational managers of the organisation. External advisers will lack the detailed understanding of how they operate, how the business operates to add much value in those decisions.
Jason West: So, finally, just to start wrapping things up for today’s episode, one of the common failings that we see in programs that could get you into trouble, is a lack of documentation around the key decisions to major in governance meetings. Let’s just dig into that little bit because it is an area that quite often gets overlooked.
Joe Ales: Yeah, absolutely. Transformation programmes are making large scale changes to an interdependent set of processes and people. And on an evolving set of business requirements. So, keeping track of these decisions in this sort of type of environment goes beyond the ability of any one person. Documenting as you go avoids reopening decisions further down the line. The amount of times I’ve heard people ask “why have we made that particular set of design decisions?“ and there’s documentation to describe the rationale. Then it just means that you’re re–opening these envelopes all time, and its costly, there’s rework, delays and we talked about the impact of this on technology as you get closer and closer to go live. However, if design changes enhance the ability to deliver a business case then it shouldn’t be rejected out of hand. Even if it’s at later phases of testing.
We did talk before about the risks of making changes quite late in the program, but if it warrants it, then it shouldn’t be disregarded. So, your governance structure should really be agile enough to consider these changes quickly and take the right course for your business. Sometimes delays and additional costs really are worth it, so don’t just totally disregarded.
Just make sure that you document the reasons why the decision was made, and the information that was available at the time, and is included within those reasons. And then actually, documenting your decisions enables you to conduct a much more effective ‘lessons learned’ after go live, which you which you can then carry on into future phases of other programs.
Jason West: Yeah, and I think that’s a great point to end on. We’ve said it before, and will no doubt say it again, that transformation is relatively straight forward process. But you have to recognise that you’re making changes to this complex interplay of people, process, and technology. So, it’s not possible to map out all these downstream impacts of every decision, as they ripple out through the organisation. But making sure that you documented it, that you’ve got track of what happens, is going to help you as you go back and review.
So, just as a bit of a recap: engaging the right people in reviewing the solution designs, and new program decisions can help you make the best possible decisions in the moment, based on the information that you have at hand. Documenting your design decisions and the business rationale behind them gives you the ability to look back, learn and refine your solution designs over time. Because it’s all too easy to lose sight of the fact that this big, showy multi–million dollar program, that you got everyone all excited about, is in reality just delivering the first iteration of your new operating model. So, the capability of your operational teams, the processes in the technology, and their readiness to function in this brave new world that you’ve got in store for them, is actually the focus for season three, which we’re going to cover on transition.
But before we get to that season three, which is taking everything into production and then launching it out to the business at large, but before we get to that, we are actually going to take some time to deal with the problem that’s in front of us right now.
So, joining us next week is Lucy Finney, Head of Leadership Development, and we’re going to discuss crisis management and recovery. Please join us next week and we’re going to be delving into this in a bit more detail.
[OUTRO: thanks for listening, we really appreciate your support. This episode focused on one of critical success factors in the build phase of transformation. If you would like to be at the front of the queue for next week’s episode please hit the subscribe button and don’t forget to like the show if you found it useful at underscore-group.com.]