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(From Monty Python’s Flying Circus – Eric Idle)

If a survey of teams was conducted to find out what they hated the most about working on projects, governance is likely to rank fairly high. Ask a group of project managers working for a large organization the same question and governance is likely to receive the most votes. This is because most governance approaches are or at least perceived as being onerous and viewed as barriers rather than enablers to getting work done.

Have a theoretical conversation with project managers about governance and they won’t argue about its importance unless they are anarchists. Governance keeps both individuals and the organization safe and ensures that resources get used in a responsible manner. The issue lies not with governance itself but with its implementation.

An approach I’ve supported in the past has been for governance leaders to effectively educate delivery teams on the control objectives which need to be satisfied but then leave it to teams to figure out how to meet those objectives. The challenge with this approach is that if teams feel under pressure to deliver (and tell me the last time you were on a team which didn’t feel such pressure!), without simultaneous emphasis on achieving control objectives, those might get ignored. The project manager can try to act as the conscience of the team, but by doing so they might lose the respect of their team, or worse, the full burden of satisfying governance requirements might fall on them.

A different approach might be to leverage nudge theory.

Wikipedia provides the following overview (I have highlighted in bold the two most common approaches for implementing project governance): “Nudge is a concept in behavioral economics, political theory, and behavioral sciences which proposes positive reinforcement and indirect suggestions as ways to influence the behavior and decision making of groups or individuals. Nudging contrasts with other ways to achieve compliance, such as education, legislation or enforcement.“. Later in the same page the authors state “A nudge makes it more likely that an individual will make a particular choice, or behave in a particular way, by altering the environment so that automatic cognitive processes are triggered to favour the desired outcome.

One example which many travelers have probably experienced is how bed linens get changed in a multi-day hotel stay. A number of hotel chains have adopted the practice of using a card which the guest needs to place on the bed to signal the housekeeper to change the linens. In the absence of this card, the housekeeper’s default behavior is to make the bed with the existing linens, thus reducing the environmental impacts of unnecessary washing.

When introducing nudges there are a few principles to think about:

  1. Don’t hide the nudges as we want to ensure that delivery teams are fully aware that they are being introduced
  2. Involve delivery teams in the design, development and roll out of the nudges to avoid change resistance
  3. Focus nudges on helping teams do the “right” thing as opposed to preventing them from doing the “wrong” thing as there is more likely to be buy-in when the outcome is a positive one.

So what nudges can YOU come up with which might satisfy the governance requirements faced by your team?

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