Dave Golding
Dave Golding Architect

Our Thinking Thu 24th November, 2022

Why data governance is a team sport

A lot of people worry about data governance. It’s a common topic that we hear from many of our customers across all sectors, and independent research backs this up. In fact, in  a recent analysis we made from thousands of industry requests, data governance was the main concern for many data leaders.

We hear concerns from people in senior management about how to operate effective data governance, and as a company focused on agile delivery we also hear  from “people on the ground” who worry about finding the right balance between governance and delivery. 

Where does this worry come from? What can we do to help people operate data governance effectively? In this blog I’ll share some of my experiences and learning about the “secret sauce” of good governance, and describe some concrete steps you can take to help.

Here’s what it boils down to

  • Governance is essentially about people not documents.
  • People are anxious.
  • Don’t be afraid.
  • Talk to each other.
  • Help each other.

What does governance mean to you?

When I say “governance” what does this make you think? How does it make you feel? If you’re able, take a moment to reflect on this now and observe your gut reactions.

When we pose this question to agile delivery teams, answers typically tend to group around two areas:

  1. “Governance gets in the way of delivery”. Sometimes people describe governance as being like Darth Vader or the bouncers at a nightclub!
  2. “Governance is a box-ticking exercise”. Agile delivery teams often mention frustration at a seemingly endless number of documents that need to be filled in.

We’re not saying that we agree with these sentiments; we’re just reporting what others have told us about how they feel.

In order to help agile delivery teams interact more effectively with governance, we work with them to help them understand the nature of good governance as we see it.

So – what is the essence of governance?

In our work with agile delivery teams, we try to help them understand the following key points about governance from our experience:

  • Governance is not essentially about documents.
  • Governance is essentially about people.
  • Governance is about people who are worried about how to do things safely.
  • Governance is about people making decisions under uncertainty and ambiguity.
  • People are anxious.
  • Relationships are hard.

Your organisation will have people who are legally accountable for the safe handling of data under their care. It’s not easy being accountable for data – just ask any Chief Data Officer, or Chief Information Security Officer, or your Audit & Risk Committee! Given the complexity of the data and the many interacting forms of legislation, it is not always clear what is the “right thing to do”. The accountable people are rightly worried that data could be mismanaged or lost, or that a mistake could be made that would impact the whole business.

Governance is (or should be) the means by which people get together to agree on a way of handling this risk, uncertainty and ambiguity. When it’s not clear what to do, governance provides a means of establishing a consensus among people about the best course of action to ensure that data is being safely managed and controlled.

So – how can we use this understanding to work better together towards governance that provides both safe management of data and effective delivery? Is there a “secret sauce” of governance?

“Secret sauce” for effective data governance

Governance is a way of reaching a consensus among people who make decisions about operating safely in the presence of complexity, uncertainty and ambiguity. In our experience of working with both governance bodies and agile delivery teams, we have found some key things that have helped everyone work effectively together.

  • Empathise. Don’t say “I empathise”: empathise!

As an agile delivery team, remember that the people in charge of data governance have a difficult job too. They are asked to make tricky decisions, and it’s often not clear what the right approach is, particularly when you’re dealing with complex, sensitive data at scale.

The people in charge of governance are just trying to do the right thing for the whole organisation, balancing the needs of delivery with many different forms of interacting legislation and policy. Being empathetic of their situation goes a long way – just as it does when they are empathetic about your needs too. Remember that being empathetic is an activity not a statement; it’s an active way of relating together, and it takes purposeful effort.

  • Whose problem is it? Make it our problem together.

We have heard that some delivery teams view governance as “somebody else’s problem”. This is neither true nor useful. If you do not consider the needs of governance throughout your work, you risk failing at the final hurdle when your project cannot go live because it is not handling data safely. This benefits no-one.

It is key to find the right people to work together with on your project’s governance. If you can’t find them, keep looking – don’t give up! Build the relationship with those people so you understand their key worries about your project, and work together to resolve them. Doing this early means everyone is much happier later, and results in faster delivery.   

  • Documents are worries. Therapy works.

One of our key theses is that governance is essentially about people rather than documents – so why do all these documents exist? What are they, really?

In our view, governance documents are best thought of as “embodied worries”. Each document that you’re asked to fill in contains sections that individually reflect particular worries that accountable people have about handling data safely. For example, think of how many times you’ve filled in a section on GDPR. These are legitimate worries. 

Work directly with your governance people to understand those worries in detail. Talk with them, discuss their concerns (as embodied in the documents) and work with them to understand how to resolve them. I think of this as a kind of “talking therapy” – often it’s only when you discuss a problem that you can (together) understand what lies behind the worry. Then you can start to address it by demonstrating how you’re taking steps that you (together) agree can help.

  • Co-create. Prisoners / protestors / passengers / participants.

By working together with governance folks, you create something that means something for both of you. This is a form of the collaboration and co-creation that is so effective elsewhere in agile delivery. Your governance stakeholders are users too.

The “Four P” model (prisoners / protestors / passengers / participants) often used in professional training can be useful here. We ask agile delivery teams to reflect about how they feel when they’re working on governance. Sometimes people will identify with the “prisoner” – feeling trapped and wanting to escape. Sometimes people are “protestors” who disagree and argue that it won’t work, or “passengers” who sit back and hope others take the lead. Our goal is always to be “participants” – people who get involved, take shared responsibility, and help each other to reach the goal. 

  • Advice and guidance – not “sign this off!”

Imagine how you’d feel if you were asked to sign a contract without knowing exactly what you’re signing! In the same way, asking someone in a governance role to just sign something off is simply wrong.

We often hear that governance folks ask teams to “engage early” – essentially this means “don’t back me into a corner”. Nobody likes being backed into a corner. When we’ve got a difficult thing to do, we need a chance to think and evolve our narrative around it – how to fit it into the wider context, and how to present it to those who also need to be involved.

Asking governance folks for advice and guidance during your co-creation is an excellent way of understanding each other and building your trust together. They often have perspectives on the data and the legislation that are invaluable in helping to understand the wider landscape, and this helps to build better products.

  • Escalate carefully. Escalate together.

There will, inevitably, be times when you can’t reach an agreement together. This is a natural part of being involved in something complex. When this happens, be very careful how you escalate – it’s easy to accidentally ruin a great relationship. Be sensitive but realistic – if you’re unable to reach an agreement then this will be obvious to them as well, and they will be looking for some help and advice from their senior accountable team too. 

Escalation works best when both parties do it together, avoiding the drama, and calmly asking for some advice. One of the great things about governance is that these escalation paths exist, so use them well. Escalate together via the next layer up first – never just go straight to the most senior person you can think of! Escalation is not a fight; it’s a request for help resolving something difficult. Agree who you are going to escalate to, and do it together, as one team.

Ultimately, the rules of good data governance are much more simple than you think. If you remember that governance is essentially about people and their anxieties, not documents and procedure, you’ll be able to simplify your approaches and make governance a natural part of the whole rather than a thorn in your side. 

What do you think? Get in touch if you have anything to add, or have a data governance need.