When people think about governance they often think of corporate governance, the framework of rules, practices, and processes that are used to direct and manage the company. Traditionally, many of these decisions are seen to be made by managers in a management hierarchy but many others throughout an organization often make or at least contribute to governance decisions as well, regardless whether they are aware of it, or not. Governance happens not only on an organizational level, but within teams and even on an individual level as well.

Most organizations and teams today benefit from developing capacity for collective sense-making and harnessing a diversity of perspectives to effectively make and evolve the decisions necessary to navigate in a complex world.

Since there are so many decisions to make for an organization to run effectively, S3 seeks to enable productivity by freeing people up to do and decide as much as possible for themselves, while ensuring coherence in collaboration for a successful and effective organization.

Greater autonomy of individuals and teams necessitates clear agreements (i.e. guidelines and constraints) that enable smooth collaboration between those teams and individuals, and that support achievement of both long-term and short-term objectives. Regular iterative reviews and incremental evolution of agreements ensure they become, and remain fit for purpose over time.

While a decision of short-term consequence can easily be amended on the spot, making more consequential agreements that constrain people’s behavior and activity, often benefits from a more participatory and deliberate decision-making process. These agreements include but are not limited to matters such as: strategy, priorities, distribution of responsibilities and power to influence, work processes, and many decisions about products and services.

Such agreements need to be documented, both to remember them and to support effective review, and to be communicated to people affected (who are ideally also involved in the creation and evolution of those agreements).

Therefore it’s valuable to distinguish between two categories of activities in an organization, one of which we refer to as governance, and the other as operations:

Governance in an organization (or a domain within it) is the process of setting objectives and making and evolving decisions that guide people towards achieving those objectives.

Operations is doing the work and organizing day-to-day activities within the constraints defined through governance.

For each domain in an organization there is a governing body: people with a mandate to make and evolve agreements which govern how the people doing the work in that domain create value.

There are many ways to distribute work and governance. Sometimes the governing body is a single person, e.g. in the case of a manager who leads others. Other times a group of people govern themselves and all members share responsibility for governance within the constraints of their domain.

Governance decisions set constraints on activity and guide future decisions.They relate to matters like:

  • Work processes
  • Policies and procedures about how people work together
  • Organizational structure:
    • Distributing responsibilities and power to influence by designing domains and selecting people to account for them
    • Accounting for dependencies between teams
  • Distribution of resources
  • Strategy (for the whole organization, for a team, product or role),
  • Priorities and objectives
  • Consequential decisions about products, services, tools, technology, security etc.

Depending on the context, a team might make governance decisions:

  • in dedicated governance meetings that are scheduled on a regular basis
  • on the fly, during the working day
  • in a one-off meeting to deal with a specific topic
  • in other types of meetings such as product meetings, planning meetings or retrospectives, etc.

Wherever and whenever you make governance decisions, one thing worth considering is documenting them somehow. This way you’ll be able to remember what was agreed, so will others, and you’ll have something to come back to when it’s time to review.

Self-Governance: People governing themselves within the constraints of a domain.

Semi-Autonomy: The autonomy of people to decide for themselves how to create value, limited by the constraints of their domain, and by objections brought by the delegator, representatives, or others.

Self-Organization: Any activity or process through which people organize work. Self-organization happens within the constraints of a domain, but without the direct influence of external agents. In any organization or team, self-organization co-exists with external influence (e.g. external objections or governance decisions that affect the domain).

Depending on the constraints set by the delegator, teams have more or less license to conduct governance and decide how they organize their operations, and are therefore more or less self-governing and self-organizing.