Ripples


I’ve been somewhat absent of late due not necessarily to the (un)usual amount of stuff I ordinarily have to do, but also due to the kind of chaos and entropy you can only be exposed to inside a (very) large organization.

Here’s an interesting phenomena for you, that I will attempt to cast in the form of an organizational theorem of sorts in three parts. Here’s the first bit:

Any decision will cause ripples that will propagate across an organization at varying speed.

Why? Because we’re all swamped in e-mail, that’s why. And for most people, work does not even exist if it’s not cast as an e-mail1. And since there is usually more to processing an e-mail than simply reading it – even forwarding it along to a team (usually with an obvious commentary) takes some time – news takes time to spread.

Any change in direction will be met with inertia.

This is almost Newton’s Third Law of Motion compounded with the First – but not quite. Organizations do not behave like physical objects – not even as aggregates of physical objects2 – because physical objects don’t have mood swings. The remarkable thing here is that any decision that requires changing something people were already intent on doing will be met with an odd mix of the NIH syndrome and enough drama to turn it into a case study of the Kübler-Ross Model.

All of this should ring a bell with those of you who work for large organizations, so the third part should be obvious, too:

Any feedback loop will cause further ripples, prompting further decisions and changes in direction.

This is usually a consequence of the “Reply All” button in e-mail, but not always. What really happens (regardless of communication medium) is that eventually you hit reality – and in most cases I’ve seen, you usually hit it hard enough for something to truly bounce back up the chain.

This is known as the “collective Oops!” moment, and it is usually reached when nearly everybody saw it coming except the people who made the original decisions.

It usually comes about much faster in portions of the organization where nobody really wants to commit to decisions at the middle levels, or where initial feedback that would probably have prevented trouble early was swept under the carpet so as to, ironically, “not cause ripples” – both prime factors in increasing the disconnect with reality.

By this time you have a whole line of people that make the project look like a demented slinky, trashing about all over the place. One possible word for the overall effect is hysteresis, and its similarity to hysteria isn’t accidental.

The real problem is that, by now, there is no conceivable way that the organization can predict the outcome, because hysteresis assumes you have at least an inkling of what has been going on from the start, and by now nobody really wants to know how things got started – they all just want it to go away, or pass the buck.

Here’s the corollary, then:

If you’re the only one who understands/remembers enough, all ripples will converge at your desk in an attempt to defuse the situation.

Which is kind of my life’s story.

1 Or trouble ticket, or work order – doesn’t matter. Humans in large organizations quickly become queue ruminants, picking up something from their inbox, chewing the cud for hours and then (quite often) spitting it back out again in puzzlement. But that’s not important right now.

2 Although you could be forgiven for thinking there are quite a few brick walls involved.