Principles as Attractors and Safety Mechanisms

Governing IT to generate innovation and value means having the business unlock resources for these purposes.

Safe-to-fail experiments — the hallmark of probing for opportunity — are a type of “project”, therefore, that will be run.

They will tend to come up faster than the typical portfolio prioritization cycle you’re used to. In essence, the Governing Board will be releasing activity in this area against a pool of resources set aside to provide for multiple activities during one plan cycle.

So how do you make them “safe-to-fail”? How do you limit the potential for wide-ranging damage triggered by one of these activities, be that expense commitments for items that didn’t produce good enough results or knock-on effects elsewhere within the more ordered elements of the portfolio?

Think back to how Governing Boards get started. The business leadership who sit on the board begin their work by devising principles to guide business issues, information issues, technology issues and the operations of the board itself.

Amongst those principles must be principles to ensure — and here I refer again to the Cynefin framework — that in the ordered domains of the simple and the complicated there are breakers to detect increasing risk of catastrophe or mind-numbing bureaucracy in the simple, or breakdowns of expert knowledge or the tyranny of the experts in the complicated, as well as situations where a shift between simplicity and complication should be made.

Likewise, there are principles appropriate to the complex domain (I leave the domains of disorder and unordered chaos out of this discussion, as neither is a domain you would typically want to spend any extended time in). These recognize impulses to excessive testing, to poorly-formed experimentation, and to pathways that are acquiring increasing order and thus should move to a more formal final implementation.

What this means is that a simple principle in one of the three categories of business, information and technology (which correspond to architectural elements) has to be developed to deal with each of the domains in which it is used.

This is why the Governance Board process calls for an annual reassessment of how well its principles are serving the needs of the enterprise.

Business leaders, when they first come to the board, are not generally well-equipped to build a comprehensive principle set — yet the process of building one is, in and of itself, a safe-to-fail approach (remember, the Governing Board is a complex domain structure for at least the first few years of each member’s tenure and thus requires complex domain approaches to build itself).

Some principles will prove to be easy to write on a wall, but hard to see how to use in practice. Others will turn out to lead the enterprise into rigidity and need to be relaxed. All of this must be worked out in practice: the practitioners cannot be handed someone else’s work as a prescription (that would be treating the problem as one of simple order) but must move toward refinement as they learn how to govern effectively.

At the same time, a body of experts (complicated order) can’t deliver a comprehensive set of principles, either: external forces acting on the enterprise cause periodic change to the effectiveness of the principles chosen, again, calling on a complex order solution to avoid excessive conservatism (a key failing of enterprise architecture today, as it is generally treated as a problem of complicated order.)

As a learning problem, the Governance Board can only move as quickly toward refinement as its members learn what’s needed through the unfolding of safe-to-fail activity around them (remember: complex order is one in which you probe through action, then sense (measure) results, and respond based on what you find). For most business leaders, used to simple order in most of their operations and complicated order otherwise (this is why they’ve abdicated leadership over IT value to the IT organization for years), unlearning expectations of order is important.

It’s also the key leap required to go from functional to executive general management and to be a useful non-executive director on a Board of Directors.


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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