We live in interesting times: completely new industries do pop up out of the blue, spawning completely new roles & positions, business models, and organizational structures. Our dynamic environments require us to re-invent what felt like carved-in-stone and compose unique organizations that fit our purpose.

Obviously, sometimes we do it well, but on many occasions - we fail miserably. One of the most interesting cases of organizational design failure is known as the "bullshit jobs phenomenon". It was initially brought up by late David Graeber in this article, but he expanded on the very same topic in the following book, titled simply "Bullshit Jobs: A Theory".

Bullshit jobs 101

What's a "bullshit job"? It's a role/position with no meaning - it doesn't provide any real value (from the organizational and social perspective). Such a high-level definition is usually enough to trigger a heated discussion: people tend to have very different opinions of what is "the value" and what's not (especially if they feel it's their job being "attacked"). That's why Graeber has introduced five distinctive bullshit job categories:

  1. Flunkies - such people are like ... status symbols - their role is to increase the prestige of their bosses, make them appear more important (example: executive assistants, secretaries, doormen)
  2. Goons - goons exist only to oppose and counterbalance the other goons - the ones hired by the competition (example: marketing specialists, corporate legal, PR people)
  3. Duct tapers - are the living workarounds for the problems that could (and should) have been solved permanently instead (example: scheduling assistants, regression testers, maintenance software engineers)
  4. Box tickers - their value created is 'box ticking' - some administrative function that could disappear and no one would notice; they create an illusion of value where there's no value (example: policy administrators, process owners, communication managers)
  5. Taskmasters - living representation for apparatus of control where ... control isn't needed; usually busy with stuff like handing out the tasks, communication proxying or simply administering other bullshit jobs (example: many managerial positions)

Obviously, reality is rarely black and white. E.g., I knew executive assistants who did tremendous, unique, and unquestioningly valuable work and ... the one who represented the other end of the spectrum as well. It's not the labels that define us (and whether we deliver the value or not).

Take software engineers - those can be assigned to 100% bullshit responsibility areas (e.g. re-actively fix the data corruption caused by others' mistakes, without eliminating the root causes of the issues at all) as well.

But what's wrong with actually performing a "bullshit job"? You're getting paid for that, correct? So there's some value FOR YOU - which seems the most pressing issue of the day. Well, I believe you realize it's a somehow short-sighted thinking:

  • first of all, if there's truly no meaning in what you're doing, eventually someone will spot it one day - so you're just postponing the inevitable (trouble)
  • how long can you remain motivated, knowing that your job either makes no sense or could be easily "fixed" with some automation/more thoughtful action?
  • the more "bullshit jobs" in the organization, the worse the impact on: effectiveness, performance, and ... yes, organizational culture (because people are not blind, you know)

If so (people are not blind), why it's so easy to "spawn" a new bullshit job and why we're struggling so much with pinpointing and getting rid out of them? Well, there's nothing easier than "getting busy". A smart, creative individual can find multitudes of activities that create a deceptively convincing illusion of value. I don't assume any wrong intentions here (in 95% of cases, at least) - we tend to easily fool ourselves - because of our ignorance, self-preservation instincts, and because we tend to copycat others (in case of any doubt).

Bullshit jobs and you

Why do I raise this topic after all? Mainly because "bullshit jobs" aren't just a waste of money. Their impact can be much deeper:

  • they multiply the communication paths
  • they shatter organizational focus
  • they increase the inertia (aka reduce the "agility")
  • ... and water down any ownership/accountability

In my case - I've been trained thoroughly on detecting "bullshit jobs" as a consultant. There was a popular saying that:

"There's nothing wrong in spotting yourself redundant and asking to get removed (out of the project). The real (& unforgivable) issue is if the same realization comes from the paying client first."

So, back to you ... Can you spot any bullshit jobs/roles around you? Isn't there really any room you can identify - to simplify the workflow, cut off the deadwood, scrap the stowaways?

There are some frameworks/methods that truly "shine" here (yes, SAFe, I'm looking directly at you), but the reasons may be not "systemic" - e.g. many busy executives tend to create completely new positions to offload the particular problem ("problem managers") - it's usually very short-sighted and prone to "bullshit job syndrome", because it aims to solve the issue NOT by identifying (& eliminating) its root cause but by handling (& minimizing the impact of) its effects.