Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 16, Issue 23;   June 8, 2016: The Utility Pole Anti-Pattern: I

The Utility Pole Anti-Pattern: I

by

Organizational processes can get so complicated that nobody actually knows how they work. If getting something done takes too long, the organization can't lead its markets, or even catch up to the leaders. Why does this happen?
An outstanding example of the Utility Pole anti-pattern

An outstanding example of the Utility Pole anti-pattern. Each time a crew attaches a new string to the pole, it does just enough to complete its own task, probably because it hasn't been given the time or resources to straighten out the mess. Most organizational process diagrams are probably as well-festooned as this pole.

The unmaintainable, unfathomable, undocumented rat's nests of wires that festoon some urban utility poles are a metaphor for the processes we find in some organizations. Just as the utility pole wires transmit information and power, so too do many organizational processes. Knowing how utility poles get so tangled might generate insights about tangled organizational processes, but we already know enough about organizational processes to suggest some causes and responses without studying utility poles.

Consider the process for introducing new products. Most large organizations have dedicated functions that address particular markets or market segments. And they have functions that handle legal issues, functions that allocate resources, functions that devise strategies, and so on. Often, introducing new products requires winning approvals and support from all these functions, which can sometimes require dealing with several different elements of each function. For example, the function that's responsible for the Widget market might have separate offices for Widget markets in Europe, the Americas, Africa, and Asia. (So far, I haven't seen a company with an Antarctican Widget Office, but the century is still young.)

If gaining approvals is complicated enough, the most valuable expertise of new product advocates isn't product knowledge or even marketing knowledge. Instead, it's knowledge about winning approvals — that is, knowing how the wires are strung from utility pole to utility pole.

What causes and maintains this anti-pattern? How can we work around it?

Indicators
One sign of this anti-pattern: getting something done requires that you either ask (and trust) an expert, or refer to some Web-based process manuals that are often out of date. Another sign: nobody really knows. Another: you begin by following the best available advice, and you discover twists, turns, and speed bumps that nobody knew about.
One of my As we divide our organizations
into smaller bits to make them
more manageable, coordinating
the bits gets more complicated
favorite examples is the approval loop. To secure approval A, you first need to secure approval B. And to get approval B, you first need approval C. But before you can get approval C, you need approval A. I haven't yet seen a two-link chain, probably because it would be so obvious that people would have to fix it.
Causes
As we divide our organizations into smaller bits to make them more manageable, coordinating the bits gets more complicated, like the wires on utility poles. Because motivating organization-wide action requires the approval of all the bits, each organizational bit effectively has a veto.
Eliminating the veto by limiting the smaller organizational bits to advisory roles doesn't help much. The people to whom the bits report are generally so overloaded that coherent synthesis of conflicting advice from multiple sub-organizational elements is unreliable, even if these people are able to hear the smaller voices in their areas of responsibility.

We'll continue this exploration next time, looking for workarounds and interventions. Next in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: The Utility Pole Anti-Pattern: II  Next Issue

52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your projects always (or almost always) late and over budget? Are your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around. Read 52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented Organizations, filled with tips and techniques for organizational leaders. Order Now!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenOUSJYJxzaiRMFCsKner@ChaczivHFjsjrYBhjpoXoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:

The Thinker PowerPointingThink Before You PowerPoint
Microsoft PowerPoint is a useful tool. Many of us use it daily to create presentations that guide meetings or focus discussions. Like all tools, it can be abused — it can be a substitute for constructive dialog, and even for thought. What can we do about PowerPoint abuse?
Dogs Fighting in a Wooded Clearing, by Frans SnydersMudfights
When we steer the discussion away from issues to attack the credibility, motives, or character of our debate partners, we often resort to a technique known as the ad hominem attack. It's unfair, it's unethical, and it leads to bad, expensive decisions that we'll probably regret.
Two different chairsTake Any Seat: I
When you attend a meeting, how do you choose your seat? Whether you chair or not, where you sit helps to determine your effectiveness and your stature during the meeting. Here are some tips for choosing your seat strategically.
Arrival of Cortés in Vera CruzWacky Words of Wisdom: II
Words of wisdom are so often helpful that many of them have solidified into easily remembered capsules. And that's where the trouble begins. We remember them too easily and we apply them too liberally. Here's Part II of a collection of often-misapplied words of wisdom.
Fugu Rubripes, the Fugu fishEmbolalia and Stuff Like That: I
When we address others, we sometimes use filler — so-called automatic speech or embolalia — without thinking. Examples are "uh," "um," and "er," but there are more complex forms, too. Embolalia are usually harmless, if mildly annoying to some. But sometimes they can be damaging.

See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness and Workplace Politics for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A human marionetteComing November 29: Manipulators Beware
When manipulators try to manipulate others, they're attempting to unscrupulously influence their targets to decide or act in some way the manipulators prefer. But some targets manage to outwit their manipulators. Available here and by RSS on November 29.
Desperation at workAnd on December 6: Reframing Revision Resentment: I
From time to time, we're required to revise something previously produced — some copy, remarks, an announcement, code, the Mona Lisa, whatever… When we do, some of us experience frustration, and view the assignment as an onerous chore. Here are some alternative perspectives that might ease the burden. Available here and by RSS on December 6.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenTwFiRMluqfJYJrXEner@ChacDkHVBzjsjxuLIIrdoCanyon.com or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

Ten Project Management Fallacies: The Power of Avoiding Hazards
Most Ten Project Management Fallaciesof what we know about managing projects is useful and effective, but some of what we know "just ain't so." Identifying the fallacies of project management reduces risk and enhances your ability to complete projects successfully. Even more important, avoiding these traps can demonstrate the value and power of the project management profession in general, and your personal capabilities in particular. In this program we describe ten of these beliefs. There are almost certainly many more, but these ten are a good start. We'll explore the situations where these fallacies are most likely to expose projects to risk, and suggest techniques for avoiding them. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy new blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.