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Make key governance moves like a chess master


December 10, 2021

I’m often asked to describe the challenges inherent in large-scale transformations. My short answer? Effective governance.

Executing a complex transformation is a bit like playing chess: once a game is underway, there are more possible ways for it to play out than there are atoms in the observable universe. Similarly, I would say there is virtually no chance of ending up where you expect at the outset of a transformation.

Making decisions amid constant uncertainty and upheaval is at the heart of any transformation journey…and it is only possible with good governance.

The governance gambit

The gambit—as many learned from the Netflix series “The Queen’s Gambit”—is a term for the opening move in a chess match, which sets the course for the rest of the game. For transformations, the gambit must center around governance.

Companies tend to underestimate the importance of a robust governance model when embarking on a transformation. According to research from the Harvard Business Review, 53% of organizations haven’t developed a strong, business-wide governance approach.

In a multi-tower transformation program that addresses multiple initiatives or areas of the business, the Transformation Office needs to own governance end-to-end. And leadership alignment plays an essential—and often-overlooked—part in establishing this model.

If the leadership team is not in agreement on what the organization is trying to achieve and how they intend to get there, it is nearly impossible to implement successful governance.

Effective governance demands a diverse group of stakeholders who are engaged from the start and know what to do. Just as horizontally moving bishops and diagonally moving rooks would mess up a game, transformations often go astray when roles and responsibilities are not clearly defined or understood at all levels of the organization (or across partners).

Leadership alignment from the C-suite down helps ensure that everyone involved in the governance process is focused on achieving the transformation vision and business outcomes.

Stakeholders can change during the journey, so it’s important to both have a plan and be willing and able to adapt. Leaders must make multiple individual moves without losing sight of the whole gameboard.

Decisions are destiny

An organization cannot manage transformation the same way it manages day-to-day operations.

The transformation office needs to understand and manage progress at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels to successfully steer the transformation and communicate with leadership. The sheer volume of decisions required can be overwhelming, which is why establishing the overall decision-making process itself is key:

  • What are the guiding principles driving your decision making?
  • What data are you relying on?
  • How are you evaluating that information to make decisions?
  • Who ultimately has responsibility for what?

When the right people are empowered to make critical decisions and clear escalation paths are defined, a transformation is much more likely to succeed. When working with clients, we make sure to invest time at the beginning to engage all stakeholders in designing the governance model and determining the decision-making criteria. This ensures that each team at the tactical, operational, and strategic levels feels empowered to make the appropriate decisions and clearly understands when escalation is required.

For example, a design authority governance model often includes a technology review board to assess technical changes (e.g., infrastructure) and a design working group that evaluates solution options and provides recommendations to the design authority.

Seeing the whole game board

Transformation is a lengthy process: even a compressed transformation takes years, not months. Stakeholders can change during the journey, so it is important to both have a plan and be willing and able to adapt. Leaders must make multiple individual moves without losing sight of the whole game board.

Transformation masters continuously prioritize (and reprioritize) initiatives based on progress and value and course-correct throughout the journey. They also constantly rebalance priorities and quickly pivot when things change, always making decisions that tie back to the transformation vision and value.

For example, if decisions or other circumstances are negatively impacting your value case, you may need to make up for that shortfall somewhere else. Success requires a constant willingness to evaluate effectiveness, adjust and be transparent about those adjustments.

Having an effective governance model in place with clear decision rights and transparency around how decisions are made and communicated is crucial, because ultimately transformations affect people, not just technology, operations, or value.

To move at speed while maintaining organizational alignment, the model must be well understood, particularly for matters that cannot be easily resolved.

Chess master Savielly Tartakower once said, “Tactics is knowing what to do when there is something to do; strategy is knowing what to do when there is nothing to do.” 1

Transformations rarely follow a clear path, but with effective governance, any organization can achieve its “checkmate.”

For more information on how to execute transformation like a chess master, please contact us.


Cassie Walls

Managing Director – Technology Strategy & Advisory