In this #mtpcon London+EMEA keynote, Lisa Welchman, the author of Managing Chaos looks at the importance and benefits of governance and governance frameworks, who’s responsible for them, and at what product managers can do to improve governance in their organisations.

Watch this video or read on for key highlights from the talk.

Please note: During this talk there is a small technical glitch, due to wifi on the day. We will be updating this video with an edited version in the near future. In the meantime, thanks for your patience.

In brief

  • Governance is not something to be afraid of, it’s about defining ways for people to work together to meet shared goals.
  • The problem in digital governance is often that we don’t know who is supposed to define the rules and strategy. A framework forces the organisation to articulate accountability.
  •  We’re caught in a non-strategic production cycle that creates digital sprawl, ill-considered low-quality products and burns out the digital team.
  • To counteract this, product managers should connect with their peers, form communities of practice and talk to leadership about creating a digital governance framework.

Lisa says her talk aims to help product managers understand the powerful position they are in.  She says that she’s often asked by organisations she works with not to use the word governance in case it causes bad feeling.

She always refuses and says it’s not something to be afraid of because it’s about defining ways for people to work together to meet shared goals.

Governance is not a workflow, a committee, or a way to make your job harder, but it is a way to enable a team to work quickly if they want to, in a sounder, more coordinated way.

Clear decision making

A governance framework is about clear decision making, clarity of strategy and values and shared goals, Lisa says. These things are clear in teams like sports teams or medical teams, but for some reason digital teams have bucked against them, she adds.

“Rules are normal,” she says, “human beings are rules-based… there’s nothing in the world that’s not standards-based that’s stable. Rules are why we have a job and it’s naive to believe that you’ll build great high-quality products without establishing a framework of rules.” The problem in digital governance is often that you don’t know who is supposed to define the rules and strategy, she adds, and a framework forces the organisation to articulate accountability.

The first step is to articulate what is digital within the organisation – and these things can shift, as Lisa explains. Look at the embedded digital technology now in cars, for example.

Then work out who should write the guidance. This can be hard to work out, but being clear about it allows you to consider your team – the people who have to abide by the framework.

If you don’t take these steps then it falls to makers – product managers – to create rules and establish guidance and it may be outside their purview or competence.

Innovation hyberbole

Lisa thinks we’re caught in a non-strategic production cycle that she calls innovation hyperbole. “It’s making it up as you go along, not having a plan. It’s not innovation, it’s a way to create digital sprawl and it creates ill-considered low-quality products and burns out the digital team.”

She says we should use governance to move from innovation hyperbole to strategic innovation. “I know that organisations with poorly designed  governance frameworks often produce lower quality and unsafe online experiences.” Business leadership aligns to the bottom line rather than a set of ethical values and often doesn’t think it’s a problem: “Leaders push product managers to produce, produce, produce, and not to consider.”

Where do you start?

First, understand the context of where you are and the nature of what you’re doing. Everyone works so quickly that it’s not always easy to understand this. Even if leadership has delegated strategy down to a more tactical level in the business, you still have shared strategic values and goals.You need to understand where you are as an organisation. Is your organisation immature as an organisation or only digitally immature?

Next, understand the permanence and impermanence of what you’re building. Lisa refers to Frank Duffy’s shearing layers here, so ask yourself what layer the thing you’re building is on. If it’s something that will be around for a long time, then you might want to slow down and make sure you’re doing your best work.

Finally, ask where the product and the product team are, developmentally. Everything is immature at the launch of a product. As it grows – if you aren’t careful – things can go in multiple directions and potentially fall apart. It’s a stage that needs controls and constraints to avoid descending into chaos. Governance can pull you out of chaos.

Where can product managers improve governance?

There are three main phases in a product’s life, says Lisa, launch, growth and push to maturity. The launch phase is concerned with invention and research and development, growth is about scaling, and in the mature phase the product or product feature is mature and mission critical.

Different people or roles can improve governance in each of these phases, says Lisa. During launch, it’s founders and inventors. Then, when a product is mature, governance lies with executives and regulatory bodies and boards (Facebook is a prime example here), and as product managers there is nothing you can do. In the growth phase. A product manager’s opportunity lies in the growth and scaling phase. “You have a huge opportunity to build governance and build alignment around governance in this middle phase,” says Lisa.

She has three recommendations for product managers looking to build governance in this scaling phase:

1. Try to connect silos and find common ground with your peers. Put aside a couple of hours a week to consider the work that other people do, try to connect with them to build alliances and bring unity.

2. Build digital communities of practice. Lisa believes this is the most important thing a product manager can do outside a formalised governance framework.

3. Talk to leadership about creating a digital governance framework. Ask for clarity on who establishes strategy and rules. This means taking the time to promote the tangible value to the organisation of building products strategically and well. She recommends reading Alex Edmans’ book, Grow the pie. His research shows that companies that deliver more value to the wider society are more profitable in the long term.

Lisa finishes by telling product managers “not to give up. Your work and expertise are really needed and greatly appreciated”.

Explore more #mtpcon video content or use our Content A-Z to find even more product management content.

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