busy intersection in Tokyo
Governance shouldn't be onerous — in fact, it should be the opposite.

Picture a busy traffic intersection. In theory, if everyone is a skilled driver and considers others, there's no need for road markings, lights, signs or traffic police. 

But in practice you need all of these. 

Last month I argued governance is still necessary for a digital workplace, but going heavy on policy isn’t the answer. In this article, I want to expand on five ways you can make governance happen.

In our street scene, there are of course rules, made explicit as road markings and signs. But the rules are also implicit in the driver skills; there are physical barriers like the central reservation; purely informational direction signs; and more than likely cameras keeping watch over it all. 

All of these are mechanisms of governance.

The 5 Levers of Governance

People tend to resent governance because they equate it to a rule book, an oppressive list of “thou shalt nots.” What if we focused on the behavioral outcomes we desire instead? 

This encourages us to think of ways to achieve those outcomes that rely not just on rules but on positive examples, subtle nudges and making the right option the easy option. Our ‘levers’ are as follows:

  1. Policy — rules and standards
  2. Communication and training — education and awareness about how to do things right
  3. Constraints — settings that block some actions, such as administrator rights
  4. Monitoring — checks to ensure governance is followed
  5. Steering — a body that decides what the governance should be and how to interpret it

The best chance of getting adherence to governance is to plan across all five of these levers. What happens when you do that is the Policy element slims right down.

5 levers of governance

Policy

Policy covers all rules and standards. They tend to be collated in a big document. People tend not to read that big document. 

I once got very deep into creating a governance document that even I didn’t want to read anymore. I decided we should scrap the whole thing. Instead we created a short set of "golden rules" — seven principles that said “What are we trying to achieve” that fit on a single page that everyone could read. 

Incidentally, driving has only two golden rules:

  1. Don’t hit anything
  2. Try not to get hit

Everything else is just detail.

No Durians

Governance often becomes bloated when people get carried way with preventing “what if …” scenarios. 

In Singapore you'll see signs on the subway saying “No durians.” Durians are a large, stinky fruit unwelcome in closed carriages. In principle, every city subway should ban them, but they don’t because it’s an unlikely event in most cities. 

Go through your governance policy and ask “does this happen often enough for us to keep it?”

Communication and Training

Just like passing a driving test, people need to be aware of governance and have the right skills if you expect them to follow it. It’s much better to embed what you can in training material instead of policy.  We often create short ‘how to’ guides for content publishers with tips for how to write links and subheadings that sound like helpful advice rather than mandates. 

You can trim things further by segmenting content by audience, so only people with publishing rights see brand guidelines for example. If you do anything after reading this article, at least break your governance into small, linked web sections and a role-based index, rather than a PDF you could jack a car with.

Constraints

Constraints can be a good way to nudge people into doing the right thing by making it the easiest option, just as road barriers channel people into the right position for a turn. Constraints can cause frustration though, so use them selectively. 

The bigger the audience or the bigger the risk of getting it wrong, the more justfied the constraints. For example, use lots of mandatory metadata and version control on legal contracts, none at all on the office party menu.

One thing I did to make dozens of intranet sites look more consistent was to give the editors a gallery of ready-made icons for their links within the publishing environment. They could still use any hideous gif they wanted, but uploading the gif was more work. 

Monitoring

Nothing makes people drive well like being followed by a police car. 

But monitoring doesn’t have to be oppressive. One approach is to take your golden rules and turn them into a scorecard of 12 to 15 items for the major components of your digital workplace (intranet, social network, collaboration sites, etc.). Go through the scorecard with each owner and treat is as a coaching opportunity, or direct them to training material to address any issues.

Steering

Whatever your governance says, there will be times when there's a sound business case for ignoring it. Rather than try to document all the exceptions, just have a process to manage the exceptions. Your steering group should agree the high-level governance, but also be the escalation point when the rules need to be bent.

Finally, Be a Legend

Legend has it that some companies have an employee handbook that just says “Do the right thing.” If people do the right thing in practice on your digital workplace, leave it there. If they don’t then gently adjust the levers.