Obstructionism is the intentional, often covert, attempt to subvert, confuse, or delay the efforts of the group or team. It is toxic to collaboration, it is expensive to the organization, and it is fairly common. If you've worked in teams for five years or so, you've almost certainly experienced obstructionism. If you've worked for even one year, you've probably also experienced obstructionism, but you might not have recognized it.
Motives for obstruction are numerous. Perhaps the simplest motive is the desire of a political operator to delay or subvert a rival's effort. But some obstructors simply want to avoid the embarrassment and pressure of being in the critical path of a project; by obstructing progress elsewhere, they gain time to complete their own tasks before those tasks slide into the critical path.
Since motives can be far more complex than tactics, we begin the discussion of obstructionism with a look at tactics. Here's Part I of a little catalog of tactics in common use by people who seek to obstruct group efforts. See "Obstructionist Tactics: II," Point Lookout for July 30, 2008, for more.
- To stonewall is to refuse to provide information that others need to advance the organizational agenda. It is often done with finesse, for example, by delaying responses to requests, by providing disingenuously non-responsive responses, or by endlessly responding to requests with requests for elaboration of the initial request. More
- Roiling is a technique used in group debate, in which the roiler heats up the debate or keeps the debate heated, or keeps questions open, forestalling consensus and convergence. The roiler often tries to instigate toxic conflict between other group members.
- Obstructionism is toxic to
collaboration, expensive to
the organization, and
- This technique is most available to managers at levels higher than the team members. By applying the team's resources to efforts other than those to which those resources had already been committed, the manager effects an up-and-down pattern in the level of resources available to the targeted team. The repeated stand-up and stand-down costs depress the effective utilization rate of the resources in question, but they are charged to the targeted team's budget at full rate for the periods during which they are available. For extra effect, the re-allocating manager might decline to provide estimates of when the resources in question will be available, which limits the ability of the team's lead to plan activities.
- Dysfunctional creativity
- An obstructionist technique useful not only in debate, but also at the organizational scale, is creating a new idea or introducing innovations as a means of making decisions more complex. Increasing the complexity of the question at hand introduces delay. If the team members elect to ignore or bypass the offering, they risk being charged later with recklessness, especially if the approach they did select encounters difficulty. In any case, they're immediately vulnerable to charges of closed-mindedness or favoritism if they reject the offering.
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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming January 22: Disjoint Awareness: Bias
- Some cognitive biases can cause people in collaborations to have inaccurate understandings of what each other is doing. Confirmation bias and self-serving bias are two examples of cognitive biases that can contribute to disjoint awareness in some situations. Available here and by RSS on January 22.
- And on January 29: Higher-Velocity Problem Definition
- Typical approaches to shortening time-to-market for new products usually involve accelerating problem solving. Accelerating problem definition can also help. Available here and by RSS on January 29.
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Beware any resource that speaks of "winning" at workplace politics or "defeating" it. You can benefit or not, but there is no score-keeping, and it isn't a game.