Lean Governance: Just Enough Structure to Secure Great Outcomes from Multiple Agile Teams

October 16, 2020 VMware Tanzu

This post was co-authored by Colin Burke, Jason Fraser, and Jen Handler.

Thriving in business requires being able to swiftly and gracefully respond to change, to turn the massive ship that is your organization around, quickly. Easier said than done! As a business leader, you understand the value of giving your teams the flexibility and autonomy to work at pace, experiment, learn, and iterate. You also need your teams to deliver a steady and continuous stream of amazing outcomes. We’ve had success solving for both with lean governance. 

The core principles of lean governance

Governance is the system of people and processes that determine how decisions are made within an organizational body. When running a software company, there are a lot of decisions that get made, such as: 

  • Who are our customers and which of their problems are most valuable to solve?

  • How much time and effort should we invest in solving a particular problem?

  • What tools, libraries, and frameworks can we use to solve problems?

When we take the principles of lean—such as waste reduction, continuous improvement, and a focus on customer value—and apply them to governance, we get lean governance. Essentially lean governance is about ensuring we make the right decisions with as little overhead as possible. It provides teams with the right balance of structure, predictability, and traceability they need to deliver better business outcomes while allowing them the necessary autonomy and flexibility.

Our approach to lean governance helps leaders solve myriad challenges: 

  • “If I’m funding the team but not the project scope, how will I know if I’m getting a return on that investment?”

  • "Now that I have all these empowered product teams, how do I keep them accountable and provide feedback?"

  • "I'm not defining requirements for my teams anymore, so how do I make sure they hit our goals?"

  • "As a leader, how do I gather learnings from certain teams and share them with other teams or programs?"

At VMware Tanzu Labs (formerly known as Pivotal Labs), we use a number of key frameworks and practices as part of our approach to lean governance. 

Management frameworks for focus 

We use two standard industry frameworks for managing organizational alignment on goals: objectives and key results (OKRs), which Andy Grove first introduced at Intel and John Doerr, a mentee of Grove’s, went on to popularize—and objectives, goals, strategies, and measurements (OGSMs), which has its origins in WWII and auto manufacturing. Frameworks like these have proven invaluable to our customers. They drive alignment, ensure clearly defined goals are communicated and mapped throughout the organization, and keep teams focused. 

Growth boards

Growth boards are used to govern decision-making, drive alignment, and encourage fast feedback. We’ve adapted our approach to the concept, which was developed by David Kidder and Eric Ries, based on practical experience. Every six weeks or so, leadership and the teams it oversees convene to look at metrics, discuss important learnings, and make decisions about how and where to invest next. These are safe and productive meetings for both groups, each of which have a stake in the value that is ultimately delivered. 

5S framework

The 5S framework provides the ability to continuously measure, categorize, and synthesize results in a way that is directly mapped to business objectives. Categorizing metrics in this way allows us to understand how they influence and compliment one another, and form a narrative that supports our business outcomes. 

These are just a few of the frameworks we leverage to ensure we strike the right balance between governance and autonomy and maintain an unwavering focus on delivering business value.

Learn more

Interested in learning more about these principles and frameworks and exploring how they might apply to your organization? 


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