Avoid the Organizational Death Spiral – Part 1

Techniques to Improve Organizational Throughput

I read a lot of work related material on my ‘free time’. To balance things out, I listen to fictional audio books when I commute to a client’s site. I recently listened to an audio book entitled The Zoo, which is about the apocalyptic conflict between humans and animals. Not a Pulitzer prize candidate, but fun. During a key part in the story, the protagonist, who is a scientist, describes the power of pheromones and how they can result in a death spiral with African ants.

Ants communicate via smell. They march along in a vast line with each ant following the pheromones released by the ant in front of them. This works great up until a log falls across the marching column of ants. The group in front of the log marches on oblivious to what has transpired while the group behind the log has lost the pheromone trail. The ant that is now head of the group left behind searches for the scent so it can continue its journey and the ants behind the new leader follow without question. The new leader eventually picks up what it believes is the missing scent. What the ant column doesn’t realize is that the scent the new leader picked up isn’t the scent from the former group but the scent of the last ant in its own column. The column of ants begins moving in a spiral where the first ant in the column is following the last ant in the column. They continue to march on in ignorant bliss unaware that they are marching in a spiral until eventually they die.

Here is a video of the ant’s death spiral in action: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WxLDin3vYUs

This sad story from the insect world is unfortunately true in our modern day corporate culture. We are too familiar with the infamous Death March associated with development projects that involve teams striving to achieve an unrealistic and unforgiving deadline. A Death March as defined by wikipedia is:

“… a project where the members feel it is destined to fail and/or requires a stretch of unsustainable overwork. The general feel of the project reflects that of an actual death march because the members of the project are forced to continue the project by their superiors against their better judgment.”

The Death March concept was made famous in Fred Brooks’s book The Mythical Man-Month with the premise that adding manpower to a late software project makes it later.

The Death Spiral supersedes the Death March in that the Death March is a singular event, whereas the Death Spiral is systemic. It is the result of organizational dysfunction where groups of people march towards deadline after deadline without reflecting or questioning if there is a better way to deliver software. Even though the organization is ‘busy’ doing stuff, they are unaware of the negative impact it has on its people and its value generation. Furthermore, since the organization struggles to meet their current commitments, they do not have bandwidth to address environmental changes (such as changes in the market they compete in) to make the necessary changes to remain viable. A Death Spiral culture is a culture that has lost it’s ability to adapt and survive and thus is endanger of marching into oblivion.

How does an organization break the unproductive cycle imposed on them by their own dysfunction? Ultimately an organization needs to take an objective view of how they are operating in order to meet their commitments so that they can break away to a new level of performance without killing themselves. This blog will address one of the main reasons why organizations fall victim to the death spiral. Part 2 of this blog will explore additional reasons that cause a Death Spiral culture and address techniques on how to address them.

Not Knowing Your Organizational Capacity

Many organizations do not take the time to understand their own capacity to deliver value. It’s kind of like the kid whose eyes are too big for his or her stomach. They eat as much as they can but eventually are full to the point of nausea despite continual goading by and eventual frustration of the parents.

Over utilization of organizational resources take on many forms. Two of the most common are overloaded projects or two many projects in progress. Organizations tend to overload the scope defined for any one project that is well beyond the ability for a team or teams to complete based on the project’s duration. This results in more overtime to complete the work in the time remaining, thus inducing another Death March.

In order to adequately prevent a project Death March, an organization needs to take a hard look at how much capacity the team or teams actually has to complete work. It is only then that more prudent planning can occur that reduces the probability of a Death March and ultimately leads to greater sustainable productivity long term.

The software creation process is a highly complex and highly variable. The only way to effectively address variability in a system is to allow for some amount of excess capacity so that variation in work can be absorbed. Current resource management approaches still believe that 100% utilization of a resource, in this case a person, is optimal. Study after study show that in the realm of knowledge work this line of thinking is completely outdated and a relic of the industrial revolution. Due to knowledge work’s inherent complexity, some degree of slack is required to allow time for the unknowns, that have yet to be exposed during the work, to become known so that there is enough time to complete the work.

Think of a team member in your organization as a freeway. What happens when more and more cars are added to the freeway? Do things move faster or slower? The reality of the situation is that up to a point, the net addition of more cars actually slows the entire flow of traffic down. Why is this? It has to do with the fact that there is no more slack in the system to absorb the variation in speed that occurs in a complex system. If one driver slows down unconsciously to view a billboard, pick their nose or text their BFF, this reduction in speed will impact the person right behind them since there is no room, slack, for them to maintain their current speed without colliding into the rear of the nose picker.

So not only do organizations make a mistake when utilizing all of their team members at 100%, they exacerbate the problem by overloading beyond 100%, many times without even knowing it. This is one variable of many that creates a Death Spiral culture.

Part 2 of this Blog will continue explore this cause as well other common reasons for a Death Spiral culture. These include:

  • Too Many Project in Flight
  • Large Queues
  • Large Handoffs
  • Delaying Feedback
  • No Prioritization Process

Ultimately, organizations need to become more aware of the root causes of the Death Spiral culture so that they proactively take  steps to improve the delivery of value and not going in circles sniffing one another’s pheromones.

Read Part 2 of Avoid the Organizational Death Spiral now. 

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