Five Ideals for Governance and Process Creation


The Five Ideals for agile software development isn’t just for Tech. Governance and process geeks can learn from them too.  

I recently finished reading The Unicorn Project: A Novel about Developers, Digital Disruption, and Thriving in the Age of Data by Gene Kim. It’s a story about a star developer (Maxine) who is banished to the dark side of technology operations due to a system outage that she’s wrongly blamed for. Shortly after her exile she seizes the opportunity to instill agile automation best practices into her new organization so they can develop smarter, better and faster. She accomplishes this by utilizing The Five Ideals for software development and innovation:  

  • The First Ideal: Locality and Simplicity
  • The Second Ideal: Focus, Flow, and Joy
  • The Third Ideal: Improvement of Daily Work
  • The Fourth Ideal: Psychological Safety
  • The Fifth Ideal: Customer Focus

While working on a process improvement initiative for a Client, I had an aha moment. The Five Ideals aren’t just relevant to software development but also to the creation of governance and process improvements.

Processes and governance are a factor in everything we do. Whether it’s to standardize a way of working or to setup guardrails around delivery to reduce operational risk. Unfortunately, the path of most processes and governance is paved with bureaucratic ideals that are often barriers to innovation and productivity, versus enablers of it.  

Standard processes though, regardless of industry, are ripe candidates for continuous improvement. Most of the time they aren’t challenged for the simple reason of “that’s the way we’ve always done it” or there isn’t a culture of continuous improvement in place. In the case of my Client, a certain process was abandoned because it was painful. It was a process with good intentions but poor execution.

Using The Five Ideals that are championed in software development is a great starting point to creating a process that is of value to the customers of it.  

The First Ideal: Locality and Simplicity

Governance and the processes that support them should be simple to follow and easy to understand. One technique to describe this is known as Occam’s razor (named after William of Occam, a 14th century English philosopher) which states, “Entities should not be multiplied without necessity”. It’s also paraphrased as: the “simplest solution is most likely the right one”.

If your process requires multiple dependencies, hand-offs and cannot be explained with a simple flow diagram then it’s unsustainable to support. Another important measure of locality and simplicity is whether decision making, even small decisions, can be made within the process or whether they must be exported outside the process.

Simply put, the process must be easy to understand, easy to measure and easy to track.

The Second Ideal: Focus, Flow and Joy

As Marie Kondo, the tidying expert, might ask…does your governance system or process “spark joy”?  In other words, when the customers of your process or system use your process do they groan in anguish at the mere mention of it or does the thought of it spark joy because it eliminates wasteful work? Can process flow (the amount of time when something enters a process to the time it exits) and lead time (the amount of time from idea or request to fulfillment) be measured?

A process that cuts out waste (and the dreadful purgatory of waiting), allows work to be completed in small batches and focuses on a value-add end state succeeds in meeting The Second Ideal. Reducing variability and the batch size of work that goes through a process ensures focus, flow and joy.

The Third Ideal: Improvement of Daily Work

Processes, standardization and governance should elevate work, not disable work or innovation. Examples I’ve seen where innovation goes to die include Architecture Review Boards (ARB). In an ARB, ideas are vetted by a firing squad with “stump the chump” tactics and require a plethora of documentation to even get on the docket. The ARB then evolves into a review and approve entity versus one that is collaborative and discussion based. It’s a funnel with difficult entry points and no quick outputs.

Great processes and governance elevate daily work for a user or customer. Aspects of any process should decrease “paralysis by analysis” while increasing the ability to make decisions early on and achieve success. Inflexibility of a process and the adage, “This is the Way We’ve Always Done It” is the enemy of The Third Ideal.

The Fourth Ideal: Psychological Safety

The environment that controls or authors the governance process should also have a feedback loop from its customers throughout the process lifecycle. Customers and creators of a process should feel safe to talk about and provide feedback of the process. A culture of continuous feedback and improvement should be built into every process improvement environment.

Governance is only as good as the environment that maintains it. If customers do not have a means of providing feedback on a process or are discouraged to do so, the process and governance that control it are doomed to fail.

The Fifth Ideal: Customer Focus

The genesis of most process and control systems stem from good intentions. They are normally a means of providing guidelines and direction when there is none. The problem with wasteful processes and bureaucratic systems is most weren’t built for the customers that use them, but rather for the people responsible for maintaining them.  

For a process and governance system to truly be useful, it must also be created with the customer or user in mind. Test runs with customers and feedback loops are paramount for process success and sustainability.

In sum…

Governance and process systems have a negative connotation because they are often wasteful, squelch innovation and don’t have continuous improvement and feedback loops in place. The aim of governance and process systems should be to provide maximum benefit with minimum effort. Using The Five Ideals, it’s possible to structure governance and process systems that spark joy, remove wasteful work and truly add value to customers and the gatekeepers that own them.

Published on January 21, 2020

Starr Corbin is the Founding Partner of Corbin Solutions Group. Follow her on LinkedIn and Twitter @StarrCorbin.

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