Chaos and Complexity #8: Governance, Boundaries and managing Time

by Gary Monti on November 2, 2010

One of the biggest challenges in chaotic situations is managing time, or should I say, finding enough time. A sign of time is critical and a change in approach is needed is spontaneous overtime that steadily increases. The probability of failure increases proportionally. What to do? The trick is to switch from management to governance.


The trap in such situations is trying to be the Flash – a comic book character who could race around so fast it appeared he was multitasking. With this approach each person, event, work package, etc., are approached on an individual basis. Wrong!

Management is fine when the situation is sufficiently stable for rules to be enforced and management by exception can be used. The challenge is getting to that spot. This is where governance comes into play.


Governance is applying management efforts across a boundary rather than on an individual basis. In chaotic situations the leader will die the death of a thousand razor cuts when attempting to shoulder all the individual challenges and difficulties people will bring to the table. At the boundary level the number of interactions decreases, returning some of the leader’s time.

What works is leaving everyone in the caldron to stew and figure out, as a group, how best to stabilize the situation. They all sink or survive as a group. This has the effect of cutting down petty behavior and pushing people to think. It is summed well in a quote from Mary Case, “No pressure, no diamonds.” A key characteristic of complex systems not only surviving but also thriving is the presence of a pressure that will not let up until an adaptive solution has been created.

Power and Survivability

The first most important attribute to gauge in a complex situation is how much power you or the sponsor above you has. Power is simply the ability to influence. This was covered in Managing Expectations. The power umbrella must be sufficiently broad to cover enough stakeholders and resources for an adequate solution to be generated. Once the power has been gained it is then critical to avoid a major pitfall – excessive preoccupation with the design specifications and their implementation.

Functional versus Design Specifications

Design specifications ARE important since there needs to be a testable deliverable for successful completion of the project. Success and the devil are in the design details. At the leadership level, though, one’s focus should lean towards the functional specification. Leave the team to solve the design problems. If the leader gets pulled into design problems two things happen: there is no leader, and the dynamic among team members gets upset because a powerful person has stepped into the design effort. People play to the highest power present – they address the powerful person’s presence rather than focus on solutions.

“How do I focus on the functional specification?” is the question. The answer brings us back to the boundary between individuals and groups. By insisting on the expected performance at the boundaries between subsystems along with the boundary between the overall system and the outside world the leader keeps perspective. Once teams learn decisions and judgments will be made at the boundary level the healthy pressure is on to work with other team members and stakeholders.

When the desired responses are achieved the leader then can reward all the individuals who contributed to the success. Obviously, this is something of a paradox because the individual learns to succeed by cooperation with other team members and contributing to client success. When this frame-of-mind permeates the project flexible relationships develop, amplifying the power present in the situation. Why? Customers can feel it emanating from the team and want more of it. The odds of success go up.

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