Get controls out of the way

Controls are essential to protect the organisation’s assets. But achieving velocity through quality requires that all “necessary non-value work” get out of the way of value work. Minimise controls: just enough to control risk, ensure compliance, and monitor performance, with the least possible impact on value work. Experiment with less or lighter control.

I wrote this long ago on a blog far away, and it lives on in our books.

Here is a checklist of tactics to minimise the impact of necessary controls on the flow of work, in ascending order of difficulty. Use this to get your own or others’ management out of the way of the work. Make your way down the list until one gets the result:

  1. Pre-approve certain types of work, e.g. police don’t need a warrant to stop a vehicle.
  2. Get an exemption, e.g. anything under 10 days or $10k.
  3. Get delegated authority in the team, e.g. a research team member is authorised to do ethical review and escalate to an ethical review board only when necessary.
  4. Aggregate the control, e.g. one work ticket for a group of tasks. Or a pool of budgeted money for a standing team to draw on instead of having to ask for money for each task.
  5. Bring the control to the flow. Make work visible and have the controller observe the flow, instead of workers all having to go to the controller, often requiring some additional control artefact. A governor should observe the flow of work and express interest in particular units of work (and stay out of it the rest of the time). For example, Occupational Safety should review all planned work in the planning tool and indicate which ones need hazard assessment, instead of requiring a special form be submitted for every single piece of work.
  6. Substitute your own control, which delivers the same outcome as the existing control. E.g. we don’t write this report monthly anymore because there is a report in our work tool that generates it on demand any time you want it.
  7. Simplify the control, e.g. challenge the level of ceremony: do we really need all these forms? Or remove redundancy: document nothing which is already recorded in the work management software.
  8. Make the control parallel to the flow of work, so that it happens while the work is happening e.g. financial approval which is incremental while work processes in stages; or quality assurance testing that is done while manufacture continues.
  9. Make the control incremental, e.g. the design document starts as a photo of a whiteboard, grows to presentation bullets, then to a skeleton document, and finally is completed as part of the as-built documentation. Or compliance approval starts as a provisional light certification with growing levels of assurance to final approval when the product is turned on, ensuring no surprises near the end of the work.
  10. Shift left: do it earlier in the workflow. E.g. risk and impact assessment can be done by the builders themselves, who self-certify.
  11. Automate the control, e.g. credit checking; or scanning software code.
  12. Remove the control. Show how the control is unnecessary or irrelevant to your work. Convince governors to have the control removed.
  13. Ignore the rules. Go around the control. Seek forgiveness not permission. No, seriously. If you’re prepared to make that career bet, make it: defy the control. Subvert it, go around it. Viva la revolución!

Getting those who own controls to modify them relies on reassurance, and reassurance only works with trust. That takes time and usually requires demonstrable success. So be patient and prove the changes.

Ultimately, changing the controls and governance is not a side issue to becoming Open, it is central. It leads to changing the operating model of the organisation (product not project, incremental funding, new capex/opex models…), and it doesn’t get much more profound than that.