To explain the phenomenon I dedicate this post to (which I come across from time to time when looking at how different organizations operate), I need to start with a simple mental model ...

Inwards & outwards

Imagine an organizational unit, X. It may be a standalone company or a relatively independent part of a larger organization. For the sake of clarity, let's assume it has a fixed headcount and, hence, a const causative power (aka capacity). In this exercise, it's OK to disregard individual motivation and assume that efficiency does not differ between types of work.

X can use all its capacity to generate value (for its users/clients/stakeholders) according to its purpose. For example, if X's purpose is to keep sidewalks clean (because X is a street sweeper company), all the folks from X could spend 100% of their time sweeping & polishing paving slabs (with their current know-how: processes, tooling, knowledge, etc.). I call such activities "outwards" ones as they generate value to be used outside of the organization and change nothing about the organization itself. So: 100% outwards and 0% inwards.

The balance

However, such a model is likely not optimal. It does not contain any space for conscious, deliberate improvement. To increase "outwards" activities' efficiency, X should invest in itself, for instance by:

  • Upskilling its employees (new techniques of sweeping)
  • Improving its tooling (better broomsticks)
  • Optimizing its processes or even re-inventing ways of working

Of course, that means temporarily reallocating (at least some) folks in X from doing "outwards" activities to those mentioned above, "inwards" activities. Why "inwards"? Because their outcome is (supposed to be) internal. Sometimes, I refer to those two categories ("inwards" and "outwards") as "aspirational" and "operational" - the meaning is slightly different (described here) but close enough.

What could go wrong?

OK, nothing controversial so far, I presume? Both "inwards" and "outwards" activities are necessary; the idea is to find the sweet spot. "Inwards" has to counterbalance entropy and build a continuous improvement loop, while "outwards" ensures meeting the commitments and obligations.

The problems appear when the balance has been upset. What kind of problems? For instance:

  1. (Boring/mundane/tedious) "outwards" operational duties are neglected, and the QoS degrades.
  2. Various "inwards" activities spin out of control, sadly mostly completely ineffective (no long-term positive impact on "outwards" ones).

Such imbalances do not come out of the blue:

  • Either there's very little accountability in the organization (no one cares about the actual outcomes of X's work - both "inwards" and "outwards"), or those outcomes are too abstract/intangible to measure/assess.
  • Or X's work has zero to little real impact on their (official) goals.
  • Or X has a significantly higher capacity (supply) than the need for its services (& no one pays attention to that waste).

Sweepers who don't sweep

How does it look alike in practice? Let's use the aforementioned street sweepers parable to illustrate the issue.

Imagine that the streets in the hood are dirty and neglected, but the state is stable (rain regularly washes down the filth, and the wind blows away the biggest chunks of rubbish). Everyone is used to this state (lowered standards due to the broken window effect), and the people in charge have clean consciences ("We hired sweepers from X for that!"), but they don't hold X accountable. X is here mostly because otherwise, someone might have accused the decision-makers of passivity.

Or another variant: X is arranged to keep the sidewalks in the hood clean, but this suburb has high standards, where property owners have always kept their courtyards and pavements swept on their own. And so they keep doing. The desired effect (clean sidewalks) is achieved, and the folks at the helm are happy, but the outcome is actually achieved without anyone from X wiggling a finger. However, ignorant decision-makers/stakeholders attribute the success to X.

In both cases, sweepers from X can (w/o consequences) focus on whatever they want - for instance, a vaporware project of creating drone-operated AI broomsticks ... Or organizing The Masters of Broom conference culminated with an international "sweepathon". Or creating a highly sophisticated Sweeping Maturity Model (SMM) in cooperation with the renowned McCleansey consultancy.

Of course, they can't do literally nothing. They need to look busy (or someone will notice there's something wrong). They also have to fool themselves a bit - that they do something "very important" (to avoid getting completely demotivated very soon).

The typical result is an avalanche of completely fruitless "hobby projects" - basically, the organization is frantically making itself super-busy (but with meaningless stuff). Its purpose, instead of creating value (for the customers), becomes justifying its own existence. X's sense of being is generating ideas to keep itself occupied. Its measurement of success is not the outcome (as there's no real outcome) but the effort made - even if it means running in circles or beating a dead horse.

The only activity avoided at all costs is anything that would expose the ridiculousness of this situation. People defend (consciously or instinctively) their status and positions.

Form over substance

Are all folks (in X) aware of this scheme? It depends on the organization, of course. But in many cases I've seen in the past, the majority are (at least to some degree). The only exceptions are the dumbest, the most inexperienced, and the ones at the absolute "bottom" (of the pyramid) who have no clue about how their individual work corresponds to organizational goals/purpose (in deep hierarchies) - and just do what they are told to.

Such a cycle of madness (fruitless experiments, neverending projects, unfocused research, artificial roles with made-up responsibilities, overhead piling up on top of overhead) will last until:

  • There comes a new executive with a clean sheet, some ambition, and the ability to inspect how things work in detail.
  • The company gets into financial difficulties (severe enough to start cutting headcounts).
  • There's a re-org wide enough to remove X or replace it with something else (equivalent or not).

Such an Eldorado can last for really long (the larger the org, ...), but ... it never ends well. Moreover, the adverse effects appear far before the final collapse - people with a low tolerance for wasting time will leave far earlier, thereby contributing to the rapid degeneration of the organization's culture.

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