Governance Can Suck the Life Out of Software Development Teams

governanceboardLarge enterprises like to centralize governance across all departments. Most large IT departments follow the leader and adopt centralized control mechanisms internally. They often establish governance entities such as program management offices, whose mission is to enforce conformance. There are good reasons for it.

By approaching major projects in a uniform fashion, everything from status reporting to personnel hiring gets simpler. Getting everyone to speak the same language and dance to the same tune makes life easier for senior executives. But, we’re not here to make life better for senior executives. We’re here to help customers, clients, patients and/or end-users.

Unfortunately, these central governing boards or offices often become dead weight. They tend to overstate the benefits of the services they provide and underestimate the associated costs. They also tend to become highly political as they seek to expand their influence. In their zeal for conformity, they do some of the following dumb things:

  • Issue burdensome compliance requirements
  • Implement excessive monitoring and control mechanisms
  • Demand redundant reports and/or studies
  • Create needless initiatives
  • Call endless meetings

Governing bodies have to create more value than they destroy.

Centralization has a price. It often slows responsiveness as requests migrate up the chain for approval and back down again. Centralization incurs hidden costs in the form of bureaucracy that’s not directly tied to revenues. Perhaps worst of all, it can mask accountability as it offers a convenient excuse for missed deadlines.

To get passed these obstacles, centralized authorities need to go beyond simple command-and-control. They need to ask themselves how they can help project teams and how they can add value to the organization. These latter components are often missing as the authorities focus on metrics, reports, charts and meetings in a furious effort to enforce compliance.

Centralizing does not mean creating project police. Enforcement needs to be separate and distributed among the project teams. Central authorities need to focus on value creation. In order to add value, they must do the following:

  • Allocate funding to projects based on corporate strengths and priorities. This requires an intimate knowledge of the business and a highly-disciplined approach. Avoid under-funding too many projects. Spreading a little money around to every project generates waste.
  • Advocate for employees by encouraging training, knowledge-sharing and movement of personnel among project teams. Without this type of intervention, groups will attempt to hoard talent and form knowledge silos.
  • Govern with a hands-off approach. That is, set reasonable, high-level goals and deadlines along with simple, clear policies that guide teams toward desired results. They should also shield project teams from short-term, disruptive behaviors that often plague bureaucratic environments.
  • Invest in the future. Great central authorities behave like venture capitalists. They nurture and invest in projects and people that have great potential. Not every investment will pay off, but those that do can deliver value at least ten times greater than the initial investment.

How does your project management office or other governance board stack up? Does it help you do your job or get in the way? Does it add value to your team or suck the life out of it? Let me know.

photo credit: Michigan Municipal League (MML) via photopin cc

Updated: April 11, 2013 — 10:13 pm


  1. The best ones whose Influence I worked under did:
    (1) really allocated limited resources based on overall org value; so one dept that needs new systems get the projects, then the next over time
    (2) measured lack of conformity as added cost; if a project could justify veering away from standards, that was a fine… but that project had better deliver to what it said the benefits would be

    The worst ones?
    (1) annually divided up IT on a percentage basis to each business area, to do whatever projects they wanted

    It is a pendulum really, orgs switching from switching from centralized to de-centralized and back again over time. Done well a company can be using its resources in the right way at the right time and reap the rewards; done poorly and,well…..

    1. Great comments, David. Many organizations seem to swing back and forth from too much control to too little. They appear to be in an ongoing internal struggle to find the right mix. Sadly, they never do in many cases.

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