Hardly Working: Governance Theatre in Digital Transformation

Hardly Working: Governance Theatre in Digital Transformation

While some find inspiration in quiet meditation, majestic nature, or beautiful music, this article was inspired by a recent journey through airport security. Bear with my logic, but this reminded me of digital program governance. Who exercises control over investments, who defines gates and dates, and who get to decide overarching criteria for program success? In theory, a robust governance structure is one of the key enablers of any transformation.

Two months after the September 11 Attacks, George W. Bush launched the Transportation Security Administration. The idea was to have one federal agency solely responsible for implementing and enforcing air travel security. Yet in the years that followed, it became clear that most of the TSA's efforts were ineffective at best and harmful at worst. Their efforts became known as security theatrelittle more than a psychological crutch for travelers.

Different airport, same theatrics. As if PCR tests were not enough fun. Photo by CHUTTERSNAP.

Many governance efforts of digital transformation programs are similarly ineffective. Like stripping down at airport security, they lack tangible impact, serving solely to make people feel like progress is being made. Hefty meeting agendas, polished slide decks, and "binders full" of stakeholders. It might look like participants are working hard, but is the format hardly working? How many use these forums to surreptitiously catch up on emails instead?

Why does this happen? As in the case of surrogation, it is easy to confuse the proximate and the ultimate outcomes. Yes, a well-run governance forum can be useful, but naturally the overarching aim should be the clarity, cadence, and cohesion of the program itself. Many governance meetings I have witnessed are more focused on the ceremony of the meeting rather than the practical furthering of the program's goals. It is theory versus reality.

Sometimes, people seem to assume that establishing governance structures can take the place of investing in cultural change. Not only is this a fallacy, but any type of program governance will not be able to meaningfully move the needle without championing and embedding the right culture first. This is both a culture in terms of collaboration and motivation, as well as in terms of accountability and delivery. Oversight does not necessarily ownership make.

One day my child, this whole digital transformation will be yours. Photo by Charles Forerunner.

How do we solve this? Worrying less about meetings and more about metrics is one antidote, as is creating a culture in which everyone feels empowered to make decisions without having to defer to committee. Boards can play a positive role, but only if they truly exist to serve and hold themselves to account. Otherwise, executives might feel like they are making great progress due to the volume of slides produced; meanwhile the program is atrophying.

The grand irony is that while many participants in this governance theatre might believe they are catalysing digital programs, they are in fact calcifying them. Employees will always yield a degree of autonomy to any governing body, and this can be exacerbated by a lack of clear direction from the top. Perhaps, Thoreau – not Jefferson – was right in observing that the governance forum that is best is the governance forum that governs least.

– Ryan