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Volume 8, Issue 31;   July 30, 2008: Obstructionist Tactics: II
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Obstructionist Tactics: II

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Teams and groups depend for their success on highly effective cooperation between their members. If even one person is unable or unwilling to cooperate, the team's performance is limited. Here's Part II of a little catalog of tactics.

If you've ever run into roadblocks as you tried to get your work done, and if those roadblocks were due to delays and decisions by co-workers, you might have felt that some people were actually trying to block your efforts. Although intentional obstruction is probably more rare than it seems, the ability to recognize it when it does occur is nevertheless helpful.

Professor John Walker Gregory and Sir Clements Markham

Professor John Walker Gregory, D.Sc., FRS (left), and Sir Clements Markham, KCB, FRS. As head of the Royal Geographic Society, Markham led the creation of the British Antarctic Expedition (1901-1904). Encountering some difficulty in obtaining funds, he enlisted the aid of the Royal Society. Markham had envisioned an expedition led by officers of the Royal Navy, including the already-designated leader Commander Robert F. Scott. Scott had little command experience, and no polar experience. The Royal Society preferred scientific leadership, and was able to insert Professor Gregory, who was then a respected explorer and geologist, and who had been part of a team that had crossed Spitzbergen. Gregory formulated a sound plan that, in retrospect, was similar to that of Roald Amundsen, who later led the first expedition to reach the South Pole.

Markham, however, had a different agenda. He was interested in science, but more interested in having the Royal Navy lead the expedition. To make Scott the sole leader of the expedition, and to then place control of the expedition in the hands of naval officers, Markham successfully pressured Gregory to resign. The expedition was then firmly in the control of Markham and officers of the Royal Navy. Markham's tactics were a form of mis-promotion. By replacing Gregory with Scott, he gained much more control (in fact, nearly complete control) of the agenda of the expedition. The move, in effect, obstructed the influence of the Royal Society on the expedition. For more about the first British Antarctic Expedition, see Roland Huntford's The Last Place on Earth. Order from Amazon.com.

Here's Part II of a little catalog of obstructionist tactics. See "Obstructionist Tactics: I," Point Lookout for July 23, 2008, for Part I.

Misrepresenting to regulators
If the output or processes of the team are subject to regulation, internal or external, the obstructor can convey misinformation to the regulators. The information conveyed might contain a germ of truth, but it's usually packaged in a manner that creates or stimulates the urge to investigate. The investigation is then a source of delay and distraction to the team.
Agitating stakeholders
Obstructors who have contact with external stakeholders, such as customers, might elect to motivate them by disclosing information the obstructors consider to be influential relative to their own aims. The external stakeholders then attempt to accelerate the action of the group in the stakeholders' preferred direction, which, by the design of the obstructor, interferes with the group's progress.
Mis-promoting
A technique available to managers involves promoting someone into a position for which he or she might or might not be qualified, so as to gain political advantage for the manager. When this is done, there is an agreement in advance between the obstructing manager and the person promoted. That agreement makes clear between them that the manager's agenda is primary, and that the person promoted will take actions to promote that agenda, deniably, in a manner always consistent with organizational policy. That agenda can include obstruction.
Career trashing
Most visible, inspiring objectives have champions — people who have successfully communicated the inspiring objective throughout the organization. To delay, or even halt, movement toward those objectives, obstructors sometimes attack the person of the champion. By trashing the career of the champion, obstructors deprive the target task of its voice, sometimes fatally weakening the organizational will to continue.
Disrupting
Any complex group effort entails making a series of decisions, and then building on the foundation they comprise. Obstructors can disrupt progress by raising questions about previously settled decisions. The parts of the foundation with greatest leverage are those that underlie large numbers of subsequent choices. These decisions are the favored targets of obstructors who use this tactic.
Misrepresenting the environment
Obstructors can disrupt
progress by raising questions
about previously
settled decisions
Both organizations and projects require accurate, effective situational awareness. They must understand the competitive environment, their suppliers, and their customers. By propagating misinformation about the competitive or intellectual environment, or by delaying the transfer of accurate information, obstructors can confuse, mislead, or stimulate debate about objectives, tasks, or persons (especially rivals). The resulting discussions are at least distracting, and could lead to delays and bad decisions.

Now that we've surveyed the tactics, we'll be taking a closer look at them — and how to respond to them — in future issues. First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Projection Errors at Work  Next Issue

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