Culture is the new governance, and where it isn’t, it should be.

As my co-author Scott Lee and I pointed out in The Cognitive Enterprise, culture provides metaphorical lane markers. Formal governance mechanisms are more akin to guard rails — it you make contact with either one, something’s gone badly wrong.

Only sometimes, even culture is overkill.

Take posted speed limits. If you obey them because otherwise you might get a speeding ticket, that’s governance. If you drive five miles an hour faster than the posted limit, that’s culture — following an unwritten but near-universally accepted modification to what formal governance requires.

But when it comes to the choices drivers make about their velocity, governance and culture only matter when a far more powerful regulatory force isn’t in play — traffic.

When embedded in traffic, governance, culture, and personal driving preferences don’t matter. If the posted limit is 50 mph but the cars surrounding you are moving at a uniform 30 mph, you’ll drive at 30 mph.

It’s akin to states of matter. Light traffic is parallel to how gases behave — each molecule (car) moves along on its own with only infrequent interactions with other molecules. On public roads we don’t want these interactions to happen — they’re called “collisions” — which is why we have posted speed limits.

Heavier traffic is akin to the liquids, where fluid flows supplant individually independent molecular action. Driving in traffic is liquidity in action.

Add even more traffic and we discover how water molecules must feel when the temperature drops below freezing. Traffic jams and solid matter have a lot in common — nobody, whether drivers or molecules, is going anywhere.

(Physics minded readers might be wondering how the fourth state of matter — plasmas — fits into the picture. At the risk of beating the metaphor to death … race tracks?)

How does this fit into the broader subjects of culture, formal governance, and the decisions and results you, as an enlightened driver … no, wait, as an enlightened business leader … want to accomplish?

Heck, I don’t know. I just like the metaphor.

Not good enough? Okay, let’s poke at this and see where it takes us.

Most of us, most of the time, think about governance in such contexts as boards of directors, business change steering committees, and architecture review boards. At their best they help the organization maintain a fluid state, where everyone’s efforts pretty much line up with everyone else’s efforts, moving forward without a lot of high-impact collisions to disrupt the smooth flow of things.

Except that, for the most part, when the organization is already in a fluid state, traffic and culture make governance superfluous.

Part of effective governance is recognizing when not to say yes. Saying yes too much is like letting too many cars onto a road not designed to handle so much traffic. Effective governance tries to keep things in a fluid state so the organization doesn’t freeze up into solid-state immobility.

What counts as organizational gas? Consider so-called “shadow IT,” where business departments implement applications they need but that IT lacks the capacity to deliver (see “saying yes too much,” above).

Most of the German autobahn legendarily has no speed limits — it’s a gas.

But from Wikipedia: Any person driving a vehicle may only drive so fast that the car is under control. Speeds must be adapted to the road, traffic, visibility and weather conditions as well as the personal skills and characteristics of the vehicle and load.

When it comes to shadow IT, this isn’t bad guidance. We might imagine shadow IT governance following this sort of model, where driver’s education courses take the place of speed limits. You don’t want a shadow-IT free-for-all any more than Germany wants insane driver behavior on its roads.

On the other hand, forbidding business departments from using suitable information technology because IT lacks sufficient bandwidth amounts to … well, forget the metaphor. Refusing to allow business departments to operate at maximum effectiveness because that’s how your governance works changes risk management from one enterprise good among many to the only factor taken into consideration.

As for plasma: How about research and development? You want to encourage it, but in a safe environment … a metaphorical race track … where only trained drivers are allowed.

I’ve probably pushed this metaphor beyond its limits.

Still and all, I think it’s fair to say that too often, governance devolves into stifling, choking bureaucracy. With the right culture it’s needed far less often than it’s imposed, and when imposed it focuses on reducing costs and risks much more than on increasing revenue and opportunity. And often, traffic makes it unnecessary.