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Volume 16, Issue 24;   June 15, 2016: The Utility Pole Anti-Pattern: II

The Utility Pole Anti-Pattern: II

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Last updated: August 8, 2018

Complex organizational processes can delay action. They can set people against one other and prevent organizations from achieving their objectives. In this Part II of our examination of these complexities, we look into what keeps processes complicated, and how to deal with them.
A particularly complicated but well-ordered utility pole

A particularly complicated but well-ordered utility pole. Photo (CC BY-SA 2.0) by Tam Tam.

As discussed two weeks ago, an anti-pattern is a commonly occurring pattern for a problem solution that produces counter-effective results. One might at first consider anti-patterns paradoxical — certainly such "solutions" aren't solutions at all. But if we consider solutions that do solve the problem as stated, but which also produce negative results when we consider all consequences, the paradox resolves.

For example, consider the CFO who, to control costs, lowers the ceiling for petty cash expenditures to a level that happens to be 80% of the cost of processing purchase requisitions. Such a policy will certainly increase control of petty cash. But the overall cost to the enterprise rises, because of the cost of processing requisitions.

Last time, we began examining the indicators and causes of the anti-pattern of excessively complex process architectures, which I call the Utility Pole anti-pattern. Let's continue.

Stabilizers
Senior managers sometimes complicate the problem when they execute reorganizations. They usually do reduce process complexity, but they usually don't eliminate the causes of regrowth of process complexity. Although each organizational adjustment cleans up some utility poles, those same poles are soon festooned again.
Causes of process complexity probably reside beyond the reach of reorganization processes, because complexity always returns after reorgs. For example, when multiple functions are responsible for a given outcome, all involved feel obliged to define processes that ensure that outcome. Process redesigns that ignore this tendency cannot stem the regrowth of process complexity.
Defenses and workarounds
Causes of process complexity
probably reside beyond the
reach of reorganization
processes, because complexity
always returns after reorgs
Complicated control processes can be obstacles to accomplishing objectives in complex bureaucracies. One common solution is the entrepreneurial approach, which aims at evasion and circumvention of controls, using networking, situational awareness, and clever deceptions. Another, the exploitative approach, turns the processes of the bureaucracy into tools to accomplish the advocates' objectives. Both require sophisticated understanding of the control processes.
Confound expectations. If you're known as a "rule-bender," the entrepreneurial approach is risky. If you're known for cleverly exploiting the rules, the entrepreneurial approach might be the better choice.
Interventions
People with risk management responsibility for projects can help limit process complexity by making its costs explicit in risk plans. Common risks that are rarely identified explicitly include: risk of delays due to confusion about compliance with requisition requirements; risk of schedule disruption due to conflicting claims for resources; risk of budget overruns due to technically ambiguous wording of contracts with suppliers arising from restrictions forbidding direct participation by technical people in contract negotiations.
Risk managers can identify and budget for these and similar risks. Be selective. Focus on risks that have materialized in the past, and use data from those past incidents to justify projections.

The utility pole anti-pattern is usually an emergent problem. Fully addressing it will likely require action coordinated across the organization. First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: How to Waste Time in Meetings  Next Issue

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