The Myth of Governance

In the previous post regarding requirements, it is tempting to think that you could avoid prescriptive or unnecessary requirements with a proper governance structure in place.  In fact, that is the fashionable reaction when any project artifact is found to have deviated from the path.  If only we had a proper review and sign-off procedure, everything would stay the course.

Now, anyone knows that review and signoff takes time.  If you want my time to review a 50 page document, you’ll be waiting 3 days to a week. If it’s 100 pages, I’ll get it back to you in at least a week.

The requirements document in the previous post was about 200 pages long.  Think about that.  200 pages is the length of a novel. Except if you picked up a novel that had the same character development and story arc as a typical work document, you’d put it down after reading the fist chapter. The quality of the attention you’re able to give the work drops off significantly after about 40 pages.

Even the author can’t pay attention past page 40. That’s why it’s common to find documents that contradict themselves.

This, along with a desire to parallelize writing and reviewing is why we often see these big documents released in chapters.  But then we gain opportunities to miss whole aspects of the subject. The document really needs to be considered as a whole.

So, governance in the form of review and sign-off is slow and error-prone.  You might be able to compensate for the errors and inattention by slowing down further.  Give me more time to review, and maybe I’ll be more careful and won’t miss things.

The real problem, however, is that review-based governance doesn’t scale. If the overall direction sits with one person, and they must review every decision, then the organization is limited to that reviewer’s capacity.

Well, obviously you scale by adding more reviewers.  But how do you ensure that the reviewers all agree on the same direction and vision?  Even if they all think they agree on the direction and vision, they will have to interpret it and apply it in specific circumstances.  Who watches the watchers?

In the end, we introduce documentation and review because we don’t know how else to ensure that our staff are producing what we expect.  However, if we think we’re going to actually ensure they produce what we expect through review, we’re dreaming.

What we really want is self-government, and I think a few organizations have done this well.  With self-government, the leadership clearly communicate a broader vision or path toward the future, and then motivate their staff to work toward the shared goal.  If you can sufficiently communicate the idea, and convince everyone to support it, then you should not need governance.

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2 Responses to “The Myth of Governance”

  1. trevdyck Says:

    I believe Agile was designed in part to overcome this limitation. In Agile, we favour discussion over documentation, and working code over specifications. We do small increments quickly, and the Product Owner can then review actual software rather than documents. 200 page requirements documents might be needed for hardware, they shouldn’t be needed for software which much more modifiable. Instead of writing documents and reviewing them, talk at length about a feature, write the code, and review the output all in 1-2 weeks. If it isn’t right, do it over. That’s an agile approach.

  2. renegourley Says:

    Absolutely, agile allows us to consume the 200 page requirements doc in chunks. However, it still doesn’t address the scale issue.

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