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Volume 16, Issue 23;   June 8, 2016: The Utility Pole Anti-Pattern: I

The Utility Pole Anti-Pattern: I


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?

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.
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

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