Governance models for the real world

Different types of order require different approaches to leadership, and thus different approaches to governance.

First, let’s get situated. If you’re not familiar with the Cognitive Edge Cynefin Framework, this post is going to lean on it heavily. Dave Snowden, Chief Scientific Officer of Cognitive Edge, will walk you through it in a short video here.

When we think of Chief Information Officers, we’ve known for about two decades that some are put into place to fix things, while others are in harness to take the organization (which is handling the basics well) forward into a more value-generating future.

In Cynefin terms, it could be that there’s been too much reliance on the ordered domains of Simple Order (and, to a lesser extent, Complicated Order): too much relative to the needs of the organization. That would be less of a crisis moment than finding the organization had gone over the cliff and fallen into the unordered domain of Chaotic Order.

Moments where an expert “fixer” like Charlie Feld (author of Blind Spot: A Leader’s Guide to IT-enabled Business) gets called in to take the reins are often an attempt to provide immediate action to get out of the Chaos and back to Simplicity, followed by a two-to-three year forced march to renovate processes and systems that match them.

Those sorts of efforts and the strong CIO in charge go hand in hand. (Mind you, political capital is also consumed at a prodigious rate.)

Most organizations that have surmounted a repair job and now stabilized a CIO in place that can take them on the longer journey to enabling more value from IT have tended to trust to extensive use of experts that must find agreement on direction (this is an example of Complicated Order at work) coupled with periodic meetings of an enterprise-wide business:IT committee to vet directions and occasionally intervene in spending plans and projects that are not producing results.

The trouble with this is that both the transition to an “information first, technology second” IT approach and effective expert processes doesn’t generate results if approached this way. We don’t know enough about where the value is, for one thing, and convergence on good practice by experts coming to agreement is inherently conservative in any event.

No wonder a frustrated “rest of the enterprise” goes its own way sooner or later!

No, governing for value and the long term must be done within the framework of the fourth of the five Cynefin domains: the domain of the Complex.

The CIO has to be a chair, a “first among equals”, but not attempt to lead her or his business colleages in governing and directing IT across the enterprise. The business leaders involved are the real directors, operating by mutually-agreed principles that provide a safe-to-fail framework for their direction-setting decisions.

Projects from the portfolio become safe-to-fail attempts to find routes to value, and develop them. Policy approval becomes as much about avoiding an over-reliance on simple or complicated order as ensuring they run well.

This is the philosophical underpinning of the Governance Board concept: that leadership for value is actually grounded in the Complex domain. It is the necessary check-and-balance to an over-reliance on the strength of a person, or “getting all the processes right”, and induces a degree of necessary radical movement into what would otherwise be too conservative in structure to achieve long-term results.

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About passionateobserver

I am a passionate observer of our society, the economy, and politics. Mostly I don't like much of what I see, so I write as a concerned citizen. To the fray, I bring a background in the philosophy of history, a lifetime's reading, a work history in information technology management, consulting and education.
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