Lovely day at The Shard!

best practiceI went to a fascinating talk by Adam Hoyle, Managing Director, Tradax Group Ltd, on Corporate Best Practice in Public Sector Bidding. I thought there were a number of lessons that apply more generally to running all kinds of projects that would be worth sharing.

Seven best practice tips

  • Don’t start projects unless they align with your overall strategy
Obvious, but I’ve often seen it ignored in the heat of the moment, too!
  • Make sure you have thought through exactly what decision-making authority each person involved should have, and that this has been clearly communicated and understood
In my experience the latter are frequently neglected, even if the former is not. Too many people think governance is boring, so don’t bother. It should provide the rock that success is built on
  • Give everyone involved a clear written briefing pack at the start, providing them with all the basic information about the project that they will require
Saves a lot of repetition, and makes sure everyone has a single reference point they can go back to, so things are more likely to join up later. It saves you time in the long run
  • Standardise what you can – but everything that is standardised needs an owner who takes their ownership seriously
We all know how fast most of the stuff on our intranets goes out of date, but still sits there. The corollary may also be true: what you can’t find an owner for, you probably won’t be able to standardise effectively
  • Think hard about what information would really make a difference to your performance if you had it, and work creatively (legally of course) to get it – for example using FoI requests
I think the key is identifying what information would lead to specific and worthwhile improvement actions if you had it. Too often, people ask for information without having thought about what they would do with it. When they get the answer, they realise it is interesting, but not actionable
  • Use the information you have intelligently – there is probably much more that you can learn than is immediately obvious, if you put it all together
E.g. draw graphs of trends across projects, and work out what they are telling you. And don’t ignore what you see because you don’t like the message, as people often do!
  • Transitions between teams – for example on winning a bid, or starting to operate an asset – are high-risk boundaries, which need careful planning to make sure they go smoothly
I recommend running readiness reviews for these. It is not the review that counts – by then it may be too late – but the knowledge that that discipline will happen Do go and listen to Adam talk and hear his views on best practice first-hand, if you get the chance! He’s an inspiring speaker.

What’s in a word? Documentation for governance

This is article 7 in my series on designing internal governance. As we discussed at the start of these articles, the need for governance arises because we want to be able to exercise the degree of control we need over our organisation. In the previous six articles, the structures we may establish to provide this have been discussed at some length. However, we might as well not bother unless we communicate clearly and effectively what we have set up, why, and how it helps everyone! This article considers what documentation is required in order to support good internal governance. Talking people through the way the governance is intended to work is always a good idea. People listen when you tell them stories – and I know I often stop listening when there isn’t some kind of story – because story is how we make sense of things. Talking about how it should work allows you to weave in stories about why it is the way it is, as I have tried to do in these articles, which may maintain interest and help people to see the benefits as well as the irritations.

Documentation for governance

However, talking alone is not enough. The story people hear is not always exactly the one you told. If it was not written down, who is to say whose memory is right? Documentation is there to make sure that there is a definitive reference point to go back to when disagreements arise. There is a good reason why, although verbal contracts are legally binding, people generally prefer the written sort!

Governance as a contract

Think of governance as a form of contract: we specify what authority we are giving, to whom and under what circumstances, and what accountability we are getting in return. The documentation records the terms of the contract, shows that it was agreed, and provides evidence that it was complied with. The documentation required for governance should balance the need to avoid unnecessary bureaucracy with the need for documents which can resolve later differences of opinion, provide traceability and auditability, and also (depending on circumstances) meet the need for transparency. Authorities delegated should be clearly set out in Letters of Appointment (Individual) or in Terms of Reference (Collective), signed as issued by an authorised person, and signed as accepted by the person being authorised. You don’t want to hear "I never received that", or "that's not what I understood". Where Collective authority is granted, as a minimum there must be a written record of all decisions made, and of those present at the time (to demonstrate that the quorum was present, so that the terms of the delegation were satisfied).

Words matter!

Documentation is about communication, not just about record keeping. The language used matters. This is difficult: clearly where important decisions are made, accuracy is essential, but it must not be at the expense of intelligibility by all. Old-fashioned legalese may have been very precise in its meaning, provided you understood the code, but was almost as unintelligible as a foreign language to most people. If you want people to stick to what you meant to authorise them to do, and to accept accountability for what you expect, there is no room for ambiguity. Woolly or opaque language makes it easy for people to say “Oh, that’s not what I thought you meant”. Use plain English, short sentences, simple constructions, and not convoluted prose, as far as you can. Don’t use several words when one will do! Even better, use diagrams where appropriate. But however hard that is, write it down somehow: however it is written, it is always better than nothing!

Principles to be established:

  • What formal documentation (e.g. Terms of Reference, Letters of Appointment) is appropriate
  • The circumstances where formal authorisation and/or acceptance of documentation will be required
  • How widely the arrangements will be communicated

The Midas Touch – What is governance for?

What is governance for?

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if whenever you asked someone to do something, they just did it? And of course, on the other hand, that they didn’t do things which they had not been asked to do? Oh for perfect control! But wait a moment. Midas asked that everything he touched should turn to gold – and look where that got him. Perhaps we had better be careful what we wish for. How often have you said “No, that’s not what I meant!”? Or “I’d have thought it was obvious that that needed doing!”? Let’s face it, most of us are not that great at giving really good instructions about what we need, and we certainly don’t have time to include every detail. At the same time, the people we ask are intelligent and creative. We get better outcomes, and they enjoy the work more and so are more motivated, when we expect them to use those abilities to interpret our needs sensibly and come up with the best solutions, even when we didn’t think to ask. In summary, then, we have specific outcomes we require, but it is neither practical nor desirable for us to be completely prescriptive about how they should be delivered. Governance provides a framework within which the desires for control of outcomes and for flexibility over means can be reconciled with the minimum of effort. Such a framework is fundamentally about good behaviours. Most of us want to behave well, but doing things the way we know would be best often takes more time and effort (at least in the short term), and time is one thing that is always in short supply. Formal governance arrangements help to stop us taking the short cuts which may be unhelpful in the long run. They ensure that we communicate what we are doing – so that changes can be made if required – and may force us to plan a bit further ahead. Being able to see good governance in place reassures stakeholders that the organisation is behaving transparently. It gives Government bodies and Regulators confidence that the organisation is complying with legislation and other requirements. And it allows Boards and managers to delegate authority while retaining sufficient control. Good governance means that we not only behave honestly and competently, but are seen to be doing so, which builds trust. In short, it is the rock on which a well-managed organisation is built. What good governance is NOT about is bureaucracy, box-ticking and delays. It requires finding balances – between control and practical delivery; between the risks of delegation and the cost of control; between wide ownership of decisions and strong accountability for them; between a simple structure and efficient decision-making; between minimum overhead and an effective audit trail – which provide the optimum basis for success. Every organisation has different arrangements because the optimum trade-offs depend on the context. This is the first of a series of articles will set out the main issues to be considered in designing an internal governance system and the principles which should underlie it.