Why is Governance a four-letter word?

Recent articles/blogs from Michael Meehan and Dan Foody both emphasized the typically negative connotations associated with governance. Michael compared governance to getting a colonoscopy with an IMAX camera, while Dan pointed out that “governance is about defining the box that you’re not allowed to think outside.”

I won’t argue that most people have a very negative reaction to the term, but there’s a key point that missing in the discussion. Governance is about the people, policies, and processes put in place to obtain desired behaviors. Governance does not have to be about command and control. If your desired behavior is complete freedom to try anything and everything, clearly, you don’t want rigid command and control structures. If your goal is to be a very innovative company, but your command and control structures prevent you from doing so in a timely fashion, that’s not a problem with governance per se, but with the governance model you’ve chosen. While the United States has clear separation between church and state, the same can’t be said for many other countries in the world. If the desired behavior for those countries is strict adherence to religious principles, then clearly there will be some challenges in applying the United States’ governance model to those countries. It doesn’t mean those countries don’t need governance, it means they need a different style of governance.

One of my earliest posts on the subject of governance emphasized that the most important thing is that your governance model match your corporate culture. If it doesn’t it’s not going to work. I’ll also add to it that your employees need to accept that corporate culture as well. If the people in the company don’t agree with the desired behaviors that the leaders have established, you’re going to have problems. We need to stop attacking governance, and instead educate our staff on the desired behaviors and why they’re important so that people will want to comply. It must be the path of least resistance. That’s still governance, though. It’s just governance done right.

4 Responses to “Why is Governance a four-letter word?”

  • Todd, I like your point about governance being closely related to culture. This is important. And it leads to discussion around the importance of focusing on the people and how we need to encourage willing participation. We often see governance implemented, as you mention, as a top-down command-and-control structure that is seen as a barrier to be overcome – the enforcement club. I find it much more effective to come at it from the perspective of building a culture (including appropriate values and principles) that encourages the desired behaviors. It’s not unlike building good teams that have a common focus and agree on how they should work together to be successful. I’m reminded of something I heard Mary Poppendieck say (paraphrasing): “In order for organizations to behave brilliantly, everyone has to agree on the goals, and everyone has to agree on cause and effect.” When we accomplish this, we engender goodwill and “governance” is no longer some sort of painful barrier – it’s just what “we” do.


  • […] Todd Biske has recently also blogged about the relationship between governance, tools and culture (here and […]

  • +1 on your post and Sondergaard’s comments. “Governance does not have to be about command and control.” But typically, that is exactly what it is or is at least perceived in that manner. And it is also typically implemented using toll-gate reviews–which focus on telling the project team what it did wrong and must now rework.

    Governance is about managing constraints and expectations and as Sondergaard quoted from Poppendieck, the ideal is getting to “it’s just what we do.” Make the “right” way the path of least resistance and people will flock to it. Much easier said than done, of course.

  • […] communication and governance must also be relevant to the organizational culture. So if the culture embraces agile development methods such as Scrum, then on the face of it the […]

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