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Caveman Adoption Tenet: Simple governance policies to promote user adoption

By Eric Eaton
Updated July 24, 2024


We have a tendency to treat our users like the proverbial DMV – complex rules, big / indecipherable forms and processes, long queues, and no one to talk to until the end (when we tell them they did it wrong and have to start over…).

Only you can determine how close your organization is to that analogy. It bears some analysis, though. Remember that every governance decision you make will affect user adoption – for better or for worse.

The purpose of governance

Let me start off by saying that I believe in governance. I’m not arguing against it. Structure and boundaries are necessary to keep a platform usable and sustainable. However, if your purpose is to encourage user adoption - the focus or purpose of your governance policy should be to make the users’ lives better rather than the admins’ lives.

Governance must be simple, balanced, and communicated well – or it will block and erode your user adoption.

Good governance should be like guardrails on the side of the road. They don’t prevent drivers from using the road – they prevent them from accidentally falling off of it. Office 365 and SharePoint are very flexible platforms that intentionally offer an almost infinite amount of flexibility and innovation for and by your users so that they can potentially solve their own business problems. That idea can fundamentally change the way your organization works and provide big benefits. However, either the cloud and the on-prem editions can also be crippled to where they add relatively little value. The draw to control more and more is so powerful that many times it overrides everything else – including the need for user adoption. To be successful as an organization you need to find some point in the middle to balance on. Guide your users. Steer them. Stop trying to handcuff them.

I’m not alone in this idea. I used to teach with Ricky Spears, and remember him talking about governance needing to be ‘flexi-firm’. He used to use the analogy of trying to hold onto a wet bar of soap. Hold it too loose, and it slides out of your hand. Hold it too tight, and it pops out of your hand. His PowerPoint slide for that will forever be etched in my brain (sorry Ricky), but it was an effective way to describe the delicate balance you need to find. Most of us have been exposed to environments that were essentially ungoverned. They are overwhelming to users starting out and confusing even to more experienced users, since they lack any consistency or structure. However, on the flip side of that equation - if you try to control everything too tightly, users will just go around you. This is where shadow IT comes from. If you don’t believe your users do that, you’re kidding yourself.

At SPTechCon in Washington DC this month, and D’arci Hess made a similar point. She observed that so many administrators try to ‘lock down the world’, but that this really wasn’t productive or even practical anymore. Instead, she highlighted the concept of ‘governance through guidance’. It was the idea of focusing on communicating best practices than dictating rules. Richard Harbridge talked about the importance of having some areas tightly governed and others looser and more flexible.

As the workforce becomes more heavily composed of digital natives who grew up using a wide variety of web, mobile, and social tools, this issue will only grow. Gone are the days when we could provide a limited tool that we think is good enough and have a reasonable expectation that users will use it. We have to enable users to create solutions to the business problems that they understand better than we do. It’s far better to provide a place where users can innovate and do what they want / need. Make it a safe place with reasonable boundaries rather than dictate impractical limitations that fit our own world view.

Let’s dive into some more specific recommendations for creating governance policies that promote user adoption rather than hinder it.

Top 10 tips for highly ‘adoptable’ governance

  1. Don’t copy / paste a policy from another web platform.
    Have SharePoint / O365 SMEs who believe in the benefits of the platform write the governance policies, or you won’t reap the benefits for which you’re paying. As mentioned earlier, SharePoint and Office 365 are designed specifically to be collaborative and flexible. Most other platforms have a much tighter functional focus where it’s easy to identify and build strict policies around core functionality. If you try to apply a tight control paradigm originating from one of those types of platforms – you’ll prevent users from using Office 365 / SharePoint as it was intended, and you will cut user adoption off at the knees.
  2. Governance must be simple to understand.
    When you’re writing any rule for you governance plan ask yourself if you can explain it in just a sentence or two using plain English. Make the decisions, the forms, the rules, and the responsibilities as simple as you can. A user might sometimes need to ask for additional detail if they need an advanced scenarios, but they should rarely need to ask for less detail to understand the basic idea.
  3. Governance must be easy to find.
    Ideally, you should publish your governance in the same location or channel where you deliver self-help tutorials and other performance support materials. What better way to make sure the two kinds of info are in agreement than to manage them in the same place? Users don’t really care if their question / problem is answered by ‘governance’ or ‘help’ materials. They just want an answer. Why make them go two places?
  4. Governance must be easy to consume.
    Equally important to the phrasing, location, and complexity of the policy is its publishing method. It should not be a 178-page PDF document. Users are generally not willing to read all of your governance policies – just like you’re not willing to read all of your EULAs (let’s be honest). So… if they have a question, you should be able to direct them to a URL that has a specific answer for them. That means that you must publish your governance in bite-sized chunks. I prefer a wiki, personally. Each topic has its own page, and can easily be crosslinked to and from other related topics.
  5. Push key governance info to your users.
    If you’re using a tool like VisualSP to provide help in-context where people are using the features – use that tool to also push whatever policies and best practices are relevant to directly to the user within each scope. This makes it easier for the users to find, easier for you to direct people to it, and more likely that your users will see the other help materials you are pushing to them. The result of this kind of contextual cross-pollination is growth both in skills and in adoption.
  6. Do you reallyneed to take away OOTB functionality?
    Sometimes, this answer is yes. Reasonable limitations based on specific concerns are important, but governance shouldn’t be based on personal prejudices and / or fear of the unknown. However, many times I’ve seen admins turn something off because they either personally don’t believe in its value or because they fear the implications of a feature they don’t understand. If user adoption is important to you or your organization, make sure you have a clear reason before you take away out of the box functionality. Perhaps in some cases you can communicate some best practices and other guidance instead of completely taking away something your users need.
  7. Create defaults rather than limitations.
    A commonly held truth is that users will not change the default the vast majority of the time. Use that tendency to steer them to what you think is the best starting point for the average user. This is much better for user adoption than trying to take away other options.

    For example, rather than limit all new site requests to a single site template – how about making that the default choice for users who don’t know enough to ask for something else? You might also provide a general notes field where the user can add special requests for things like a different site template. Then your admins have a chance to vet those requests, if they wish to do so. That’s very easy to implement. It doesn’t add a lot of management. It doesn’t overwhelm the user with too many choices that they don’t understand.

  8. If you doneed to take something away, you need to provide an alternative.
    If you take away entire use cases from your platform without providing reasonable alternatives, many users will drop you and your platform. That doesn’t mean you can’t establish rules – but it does mean you need to provide enough flexibility to help your users find another way to solve the problem. For example, if you are going to take away SharePoint Designer, you must recognize that workflow is a killer feature. You need to find a way to get it in the hands of power users. That could be done several ways – by establishing training pre-reqs for SPD, by providing a different workflow tool like Nintex, or offering a different environment where these tools are allowed.
  9. Revisit your decisions regularly.
    Every new version of a platform changes the game in some way. Are your governance policies evolving along with the platform? The move to the cloud for Office 365 means an initial change that’s huge. The tools still revolve around a similar core, but the style of the implementation and the universe of new tools dramatically change their use. This should be reflected by a different style of governance, as well. You should be asking yourself what is the real-life benefit to holding the reins as tightly as you did on-prem? Similarly, Office 365 brings changes on a weekly basis. Are you monitoring those changes and regularly discussing how governance should be adapting or growing as a result? Important decisions need to be made to help your users make good decisions.
  10. Someone needs to advocate for the end user.
    If governance is done from only the admin team’s perspective – you’ll create a lot of limitations and friction for the users, and they will go elsewhere. Ideally, you should have someone on your team who is focused more on evangelism and real-life assistance than on day-to-day administration tasks. You need this for the perspective it offers. When governance decisions are being made, this person has the ability and inclination to advocate for common sense and ease of use. In my experience, without this type of role, the rules get slowly and steadily stacked against the end user.


It is admittedly not simple to strike a balance between ease of use and governed consistency. Organizations in different industries find their balance in slightly different places based on the regulatory requirements. However, I’ve seen even organizations on the stricter end of the scale (such as legal, healthcare, and financial services) find ways to incorporate these tips successfully.

What are your thoughts? What have you seen work well?

If you could use some perspective on your SharePoint / Office 365 governance policies, we offer a free 30-minute Caveman User Adoption Healthcheck that covers all 4 tenets at a high level. We also offer service packages to review or help create governance for your organization’s unique needs. It doesn’t have to take a large investment in time or money to get started making governance work for your users. The key is to get started in a user-focused way and then keep making improvements.





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