Enabling Agile Governance

‘Channel shift’, a term used to describe the movement of customer interaction from manual and face-to-face, to alternatives such as digital self-service or telephony, this has been a public sector priority for some time.

The current outbreak of Covid-19 has resulted in an acceleration in the need for ‘channel shift’. The problem that the public sector (and many large private sector organisations) experience is that the internal governance for transformation is simply not fast enough to allow a reaction to events that are fast enough to keep up.

Traditional governance processes can be lengthy and employ a ‘Command & Control’ ethos. Rationale must be presented by those who have the detailed information to more senior individuals, who may not have the details to grant their permission (or otherwise) to proceed.

This approach is typically used to ensure decisions are taken holistically across an entire organisation, weighing up the overall priorities of costs, resources, and benefits. This is often positive because it prevents conflicting departmental activities, however there is a down-side.

As the more senior individuals may not understand the details as well as those individuals making the proposal, it can take a long time to gain agreement through the use of presentations, business cases, socialisation, and board meetings – with much debate and opinion sharing!

Often governance timescales can be in excess of 6 months for larger decisions.

These delays are what cause large organisations to stifle in the face of the rapidly changing needs of their customers (emergence of digital self-service) or in times of unexpected crisis (COVID-19).

We need to become more agile and create the environment for faster decisions if we want to succeed.

Delegated authority is the answer.

How do we do this and stay in control? If delegated decision makers are taking decisions without the most senior people, won’t we lose control of the organisation?

Simply put, no.

To maintain control, we need to create the environment for success.  David Marquet, a former US nuclear submarine commander turned management guru suggested that the environment in which we can give control is supported by two pillars:

  1. Technical Competence – Ensuring that the right managers are equipped with the right knowledge and capability to take strategic decisions will ensure they always ‘do the right thing’
  2. Organisational Clarity – Providing all tiers of management with real-time visibility of priorities, constraints and parameters will ensure that they make decisions aligned to a clear set of rules and logic

If we achieve these two vital aspects, we are then able to move the authority to where the information is. We will get a better decision, and we will get faster execution.

It feels wrong because humans are hard wired to take command. Giving control, within a structured environment, creates leaders, and they will think just like the most senior individuals would.

How does this work in practice?

Achieving technical competence is a matter of personal development, training and coaching. Managers will need to understand the decision-making process and how they will be assessed based on the decisions they take. This creates trust and accelerates the development of individuals.

Achieving organisational clarity often appears too hard a barrier to successfully navigate. In reality, all we need to do is simplify the complex, ensuring those who hold delegated authority understand clearly the strategic direction, priorities and constraints of the organisation. These parameters must be kept up to date in real time, with individual managers fully aware of the logic they must assess decisions against.

For example, an organisation’s strategy is to reduce operating costs whilst increasing customer satisfaction. A new digital app is proposed that can be released in 1 month, costs £250k per annum but reduces operating costs by £500k per annum whilst increasing customer satisfaction. The department only has budget approval authority of £100k. A traditional decision will take 6 months. Clearly, approving this decision locally will be compliant to the overall strategy and deliver real benefits in just 1 month rather than 7.

There will be some typical IT governance required, but here’s the thing… all enabling functions will need to operate with the same technical competence and organisational clarity to successfully achieve faster decision making. The delegated business unit will now be actively working with the delegated enabling functions to make the changes happen within the boundaries that are clearly set. This is how we create highly functioning teams and survive through greater agility.

In summary, the traditional approach to governance is well intended and has historically served organisations well. However, to ensure an organisation can keep up with the pace and urgency of change in today’s digital world, new thinking and a fresh approach is required. Agile governance must be embraced, enabling delegated authority through an environment that enables us to be confident that all managers will do the right thing.  The result will be an organisation that maintains control, but importantly can keep up with the pace of change that is so vital to success.