Resilience Engineering #23: Organizational Fatigue – The Project Fog

by Gary Monti on November 22, 2011

Large, complex projects can be a lot like war. They are started in the name of situations or principles that get run over, ignored, or destroyed completely. World War II was started to preserve the sovereign independence of Poland, which ended up under the boot of Stalin by wars end.

In terms of organizational fatigue, the historian Thucydides in his “History of the Peloponnesian War” provides insight into the interplay between power, justice, and personal damage. From a complex project perspective, it is about what occurs when we set in motion something much larger than ourselves with many strange attractors, forces that can have dramatic effects.

The Melian dialogue is a great example. It covers the extermination of the entire adult male population of a minor island in the Aegean Sea, Melos. Because of Athens’s paranoid fear Melos’s continued neutrality in the war might be viewed as a sign of weakness on Athens’s part, Athens brought pressure to bear for Melos to join Athens against Sparta.

For perspective, think of how a senior manager can come down disproportionately on an individual or small group when the project is experiencing difficulties that are much larger than the people being victimized. This can be a particular expression of organizational fatigue. Thucydides asked, “How can this happen?” His answer comprises one main point: context over character.

The Fog of Projects

Projects get started for the best of reasons. They can lose their way, though, and people start doing crazy things because the control or perception of control is at risk of being lost. The emotionality of the situation sweeps over good people and in the name of repairing the situation draconian measures may be used.

When emotionality sets in character gets thrown out the window.

This is what happened in the Melian extermination. The fog created by over-thinking the situation sent the Athenians into a death spiral that lead to the massacre being the only thing  a just and powerful person could do. The Athenians lost their way. They abandoned their character, got caught up in the moment, and behaved insanely. The weight of the entire war was brought to bear on a tiny population in the belief relief would be achieved and the Athenians would move on towards victory over the Spartans.

Before brushing this aside as something that could easily be avoided take a look at a rather simple example that shows how easily the craziness can set in. Look at the project of laying a roof. One of the most important jobs is drawing a chalk line. This must be done if the roof is to be true. That chalk line is a metaphor for character, strategy and discipline. It keeps things on track.

An easy mistake a newbie can make is skipping the chalk line. After all the shingles are cut square so as long as one shingle is aligned with the previous one, things will be okay.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The fact is, without a chalk line (character, discipline, and strategy) one can feel fine laying the shingles until stepping back and seeing they are uneven are at risk for leaking when it rains. This realization might not occur until many shingles have been nailed in place. At that point craziness can set in. Why? The answer, as a question, is simple, “Who wants to rip out what’s been installed and redo the work?” The urge sets in to look at the immediate misalignment among the few shingles right in front of the installer and try to fudge a solution that will get things back on track. It is so easy to want to yell at the installer when the manager in charge is the one at fault. It is the manager’s job to make sure the chalk lines are set correctly to guide the work.

The thoughts of running over budget, not getting the job done by the end of the day, the customer yelling at the manager, etc., can be overwhelming. It can lead to the decision to punish, a common characteristic of organizational fatigue.

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