In which Jill foregoes the bikini. (You’re welcome, America.)

When I was 9 years old I heard my mother remark to my father that the neighbor’s house had a wet bar. “What’s a wet bar?” I asked. “She doesn’t need to know that,” my father told my mother.

“You don’t need to know,” my mother told me. But my imagination had already begun gyrating. A wet bar sounded forbidden and vaguely sinister. Why did our neighbors have one and we didn’t? The neighbors had painted their living room chartreuse and they played chess, so they were obviously hippies. A wet bar was probably something sexy where you got to wear your bikini, no kids allowed.

I’m reminded of the wet bar story when clients ask me about starting data governance programs. They have lots of questions and certain assumptions about data governance, though most have never seen it in action. It’s exciting but dreadful, important but dangerous.

They imagine themselves part of an omnipotent committee of decision makers that convenes monthly in the executive boardroom. The CEO and his staff are convivial and earnest, the lemonade flows, and plates of brownies crowd the credenza. The CEO gives an impassioned speech about how data is strategic. “Data is an asset!” the attendees cry while enthusiastically jotting down their action items. The CMO personally asks you to chair the next meeting, which will feature cupcakes and iced green tea. That went well, didn’t it?

The reality of companies new to data governance is that it’s launched before it’s ready by people for whom the need to manage data is suddenly terribly urgent. Stakeholders are confused, and participation is reluctant unless it’s enforced. Data governance hasn’t even hit the CEO’s radar, never mind that none of the vice presidents have responded to your meeting invitation. Someone wonders “whose budget is paying for this?” The only meeting room available is the one along the inside hallway with spotty internet access and a broken projector. And when people do show up they appear beleaguered and gaunt, as if they’ve just escaped from filming Dr. Zhivago.

An effective data governance program obviously falls somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. The executives in question might not be C-level, but they do have the organizational authority to incent participation and secure funding for data governance. The program itself has been designed and communicated so that when people meet to discuss it, they know what it looks like and how it drives business benefits. The team is ready to establish decision rights, so participants understand what they’re accountable for and how they’ll accomplish their goals. Delivery capabilities are examined honestly for the first time.  Efforts are prioritized based on ROI and strategic alignment. And outcomes are clear so there’s no question about what success looks like.

Of course much of what makes data governance work is how it’s designed around (or in spite of) a company’s cultural norms. How disruptive data governance should be depends on the organizational appetite for change. How you grab people’s attention has everything to do with its long-term traction.  If you can reserve the boardroom, so much the better. And if the boardroom has a wet bar? Trust me, you’re golden.