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.

One more re-run – a piece that completes some of the thinking in last week’s re-run. I think you’ll find it’s worth your time. Also the time of colleagues who don’t yet know about KJR. (Was that a strong enough hint?)

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As I get older, science fiction seems to have less science, which is too bad. Science is the hard work of figuring out how the universe works. It’s been replaced with swords and sorcery, which is simply wishful thinking, and as David Brin has pointed out, part of “wishful” is the assumption that in a feudal society you’d end up as something other than one of the peons who made up 90% of the population.

And so, while I wait for the next Discworld novel to appear each year, I’ve been reading more history. Regrettably, not quite enough, as several subscribers pointed out in response to last week’s column: Well before the Revolutionary War, England largely rejected the idea of the divine right of kings, replacing it with the inherent right of the aristocracy. Not that this was much better, nor do I know whether the English of the time claimed God wanted those with titles to be entitled.

People being what they are, I’d bet that they did.

Much of the rest of my correspondence had to do with the role of consensus in corporate decision-making. One source told me that a number of large corporations teach decision-making in their leadership training programs. Their programs (which, unlike the leadership seminars we provide, apparently require lexicographical activism) define both consensus and collaboration as conflict resolution processes, and then explain that consensus is bad while collaboration is good.

And if I define black as a shade of lavender, and white as a shade of tan, I can easily make the case that white suits make a better fashion statement for male business executives than black ones. “Collaborate” is widely understood (and defined in dictionaries) to refer to all situations in which people work together in a cooperative fashion. It’s a process. Not only is it not limited to conflict resolution, but it’s unlikely to resolve serious conflicts, since serious conflicts generally arise when people lose their ability to cooperate.

Consensus isn’t a process. It’s a result — general agreement, or more formally, a state of being in which everyone involved agrees to support a decision, regardless of what they personally would consider to have been ideal. The best consensus decisions start with collaboration, but collaboration isn’t required.

What is required is a shared desire to find some way to move forward.

Consensus isn’t the only way to make business decisions. It isn’t suited to all situations, or even most situations. It’s time-consuming, and is in consequence expensive. For engineering situations it’s risky, because the process of compromise required for consensus easily leads to design inconsistencies, and those, in turn, lead to kludges, deep in the heart of the architecture.

Use consensus when what matters, more than anything else, is buy-in — commitment to the course of action chosen by the organization. Use other methods for other circumstances.

Take product design as an example. A very good way to design products is to put a product manager in charge of a small team, consisting of experts from marketing, design, engineering, manufacturing, and cost-accounting. This gives you your best shot at creating a well-built product that’s easy to manufacture and appealing to customers.

Except that it’s never that easy. The most marketable product might be hard to manufacture. The best engineering might have too little market appeal, or be too hard to manufacture as well. What’s easiest to manufacture could require the elimination of highly desirable product features.

And what everyone else wants to build might end up costing too much, thinning margins to unacceptable levels.

Every member of the design team will have to make … that’s right … compromises. Which means that with all the best of intentions, your attempt to avoid the expense of consensus has simply shifted the responsibility for arriving at consensus to a different group of people. You don’t seriously think that having everyone make their case to the product manager, who then makes all of the decisions, will work, do you?

So here’s your guideline when it comes to design decisions of any kind: Unless one person knows enough to design the entire entity, whatever it is, charter a design team. Keep it small — no more than five people; three is better. Choose people who already know and trust each other’s judgment. Failing that, choose people who you know can work well with others.

Who can, that is, collaborate to arrive at consensus.