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? rbrennZunIGFtwbcFqdiBner@ChacDsVTxbFbImMeKZskoCanyon.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:

Huskies along the trail during start day, March 1998, Iditarod Trail Sled Dog RaceTactics for Asking for Volunteers: I
CEOs, board chairs, department heads and team leads of all kinds sometimes seek people to handle specific, time-limited tasks. Asking the group for volunteers works fine — usually. There are alternatives.
Flourless chocolate cakeTwenty-Three Thoughts
Sometimes we get so focused on the immediate problem that we lose sight of the larger questions. Here are twenty-three thoughts to help you focus on what really counts.
"Taking an observation at the pole."Risk Management Risk: II
Risk Management Risk is the risk that a particular risk management plan is deficient. Here are some guidelines for reducing risk management risk arising from risk interactions and change.
A mantis shrimp, recently discovered to have the ability to detect the circular polarization state of lightA Review of Performance Reviews: The Checkoff
As practiced in most organizations, performance reviews, especially annual performance reviews, are toxic both to the organization and its people. A commonly used tool, the checkoff, is especially deceptive.
Then-Capt. Elwood R. Quesada who became commanding general of the 9th Fighter Command in operation OverlordCommunication Refactoring in Organizations
Inadequate communication between units of large organizations is one factor that maintains the dysfunction of "silo" structures in large organizations, limiting their ability to act coherently. Communication refactoring can help large organizations to see themselves as wholes.

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

C. Northcote Parkinson in 1961Coming September 27: Meeting Troubles: Collaboration
In some meetings, we collaborate not in reaching objectives, but in preventing our doing so. Here are three examples of this pattern. Available here and by RSS on September 27.
A typical standup meetingAnd on October 4: Meeting Troubles: Culture
Sometimes meetings are less effective than they might be because of cultural factors that are outside our awareness. Here are some examples. Available here and by RSS on October 4.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenkzdewfkmIkXpRWLNner@ChacoTJqyAhTpLLMbpuToCanyon.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

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.

The Race to the South Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers
On 14The Race to the Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough, but to organizational leaders, business analysts, project sponsors, and project managers, the story is fascinating. Lessons abound. 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.
21st Century Business TravelAre your business trips long chains of stressful misadventures? Have you ever wondered if there's a better way to get from here to there relaxed and refreshed? First class travel is one alternative, but you can do almost as well (without the high costs) if you know the tricks of the masters of 21st-century e-enabled business travel…
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.