Friday, October 2, 2009

Beware the cobweb

One of my favorite writers is Neil Stephenson. His book Cryptonomicon is brilliant at both the technical details and character development. I am a fan of his early work, too, written with J. Frederick George. One of his novels is a story about the intelligence community in Washington, DC. It does the unthinkable. It makes bureaucratic struggles entertaining.

The title of the book comes from a bureaucratic verb “to cobweb”.  To cobweb someone or some initiative is to throw endless reviews. presentations, and documentation in the way so you effectively kill it.

This can happen outside of the government as well. I have seen it happen several times in my career. It will often come about when a new idea, or a fundamental changes, is taking place. Those in senior management who are opposed to change will throw a myriad of things at a “change agent” in order to slow the process down, or defeat it. If you hear any of the following phrases, you are most likely getting cobwebbed:

  • Operations Reviews
  • Review or Control Boards
  • The establishment of “Project Management Office”
  • In software: anything related to CMMI level 2 or higher
  • Strategic planning reviews
  • RACI or Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, Informed
  • Work Breakdown Structure

It must be said that Six Sigma, for which I have a lot of respect, can be used as of the ultimate cobwebbing tools in the wrong hands/

There are rare occasions when these cobweb tools can be used effectively, but they should be used sparingly. Most of these are tools for large organizations, like government projects with thousands of people. I have not seen them used effectively in any organization of less than 1000.

In the end, the way to defeat a cobweb is to go around it if you can, or to get out of the organization you are in. It is important to think of any large organization not as a directed-graph hierarchy, but as a tree structure with cycles. The cycles are points in the organization which jump one or more levels, and may not always follow a linear hierarchy.

Read the book to see how the characters got out of their cobweb. While the book feels dated in its pre-September 11 America, its still a great read.

If you feel yourself getting cobwebbed, either break the web, or find something else to do. A cobwebbed environment is most surely a soul-sucking one. Life’s too short for that.

1 comment:

  1. In general, I agree with your sentiment on Review Boards, PMOs etc. I do believe that CMMI provides an interesting framework for process improvement. The goal of an organization should be to solve a business problem, not attain some arbitrary assessment. I also concur that most companies that aspire to levels above 2 should really examine the motivation. In all be a very few markets, I am unconvinced of the ROI.