Data Governance, Commander’s Intent, and Semper Gumby

“No plan survives contact with the enemy” is an old military adage, which simultaneously acknowledges the importance of strategic planning and the reality of the unpredictable chaos of the battlefield. In the 1980s, the United States Army adapted its strategic planning process by inventing a concept called Commander’s Intent—a crisp, plain-talk statement that appears at the top of every order, specifying the plan’s goal, the desired end-state of an operation.

Commander’s Intent never specifies so much detail that it risks being rendered obsolete by unpredictable events. It aligns the behavior of soldiers at all levels without requiring step-by-step instructions from their leaders. When people know the desired destination, they’re free to improvise, as needed, in arriving there. Instead of a commander enumerating every specific task, they simply specify the intent of the plan, so that as soon as people know what the intent is, they begin generating their own solutions.

Compare and contrast Commander’s Intent with the notions of command and control that are often used by executive management to implement their strategic plans, especially on complex enterprise initiatives, such as data governance. As these strategic plans descend the tactical and operational levels of the organization, they often morph into rigid procedures for how to perform specific tasks, or what to do in specific situations. However, what is almost always absent is any explanation of why these tasks must be performed, or how the outcomes of these situations support what the organization is attempting to achieve.

This is why a data governance program requires a concept we could call Governance Intent. Every data governance policy must be defined using crisp, plain-talk statements of its principles, specifying the policy’s goal, aligning everyone at all levels of the enterprise with the desired end-state of the policy’s implementation.

While a policy’s procedures must include step-by-step instructions to provide standards and metrics for measuring compliance, there will be times when a policy doesn’t survive contact with unpredictable chaos of the business world. Armed with the Governance Intent of the policy, people on the business front lines can generate their own solutions by figuring out how best to bend the rules to fit the circumstance while at the same time still accomplishing the policy’s goal. Of course, these exceptions must always be well-documented and well-communicated, since the exceptions might improve the rules of the policy’s procedures.

Semper Gumby is an unofficial motto used by the United States Marine Corps, which means “Always Flexible.” It is based on the cartoon character Gumby and is a play on the official motto Semper Fidelis, usually abbreviated Semper Fi, which means “Always Faithful.”

Successful data governance is always faithful to its principles and always flexible in its policies.