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Volume 22, Issue 53;   January 5, 2022: Covert Inter-Team Noncooperation

Covert Inter-Team Noncooperation


Occasionally teams find that they must cooperate with another team despite strong misgivings. Because noncooperation isn't an option, they find covert ways to avoid cooperating. Here's a little catalog of techniques of Covert Inter-Team Noncooperation.
Two football teams face off at the line of scrimmage

Two football teams face off at the line of scrimmage. At work, face-offs between teams are much less well defined than are face-offs on the football field. Few teams wear distinguishing uniforms. The issue at hand (the line of scrimmage) isn't as clear as a white stripe in the green grass. No player plays for both teams. The conflict is rarely physical. But given all that, the conflict can be almost as intense.

Photo by football wife from Pexels

From time to time one team (call it Team Reluctant) might be required to cooperate with another team (call it Team Requestor) to produce something that Team Requestor needs, but which Team Reluctant doesn't want to produce, or which Team Reluctant regards as a waste of time or as conflicting with other priorities. And in some of these situations Team Reluctant is required not merely to cooperate, but to cooperate enthusiastically, or, at least, to not get caught cooperating unenthusiastically. From the perspective of Team Reluctant, such situations call for what might be termed covert inter-team noncooperation.

The most important indicators of covert inter-team noncooperation are two. First, the actions of Team Reluctant do appear to be cooperative. That is, Team Reluctant fulfills its obligations in a technical sense. Second, Team Requestor doesn't receive what it actually needs. Even though Team Reluctant has executed actions that technically satisfy Team Requestor's needs to a reasonable degree, Team Requestor can make very little progress because what it has received from Team Reluctant is pseudo-cooperation. What Team Reluctant delivers to Team Requestor isn't useful in any practical sense.

What follows is a little catalog of tactics Team Reluctant can use to execute a strategy of covert inter-team noncooperation. Team Requestor can use this catalog as a guide for what to watch for. That knowledge can help Team Requestor manage the risk of Team Reluctant using such a strategy. For example, if Team Requestor frames its requests carefully enough and specifically enough, it can make pseudo-cooperation difficult.

For concreteness, I've written the catalog as if it applied to a context in which Team Requestor needs a package of information, including some data files that Team Reluctant created to make projections of the behavior of a system under study. But the tactics described in this catalog apply to many situations in which one team needs something from another.

Team Reluctant can dawdle in responding to Team Requestor's requests. Dawdling is an appealing tactic for Team Reluctant because it limits the total requests per unit time that Team Requestor can produce.
What Team In some situations teams are required not
merely to cooperate, but to cooperate
enthusiastically, or, at least, not get
caught cooperating unenthusiastically
Requestor wants should be readily available, because Team Reluctant should have "frozen" a copy of everything they used to produce their projections. For this reason, delays would be minimal if Team Reluctant were actually cooperating.
Configuration issues
The term "configuration management" denotes the practice of making certain that the different versions of the various components of a complex system are compatible. In this case, if Team Reluctant is actually cooperating, they will want to be certain to deliver to Team Requestor versions of files that are meant to work properly together. Things can go wrong when multiple "runs" of the system are executed with incompatible versions of some files. When configuration management is practiced effectively, we don't use incompatible versions of files to execute a run of the system.
An uncooperative Team Reluctant might deliver to Team Requestor a set of data files that are not meant to operate together. That is, although the files appear superficially to be a complete and compatible set, they include one or more files that are incompatible with the rest. If the incompatibility is discovered, a member of Team Reluctant might apologize and explain, "Sorry, in trying to respond to your request so quickly we got the wrong file in there. Here's the right one." The incident looks like an honest mistake.
Missing files
In response to Team Requestor's request for data files, Team Reluctant might deliver a package of data files, but that package might be incomplete. This too, can look like an honest mistake, even if it is not.
Incompleteness can be especially difficult to detect if the ability to recognize that some elements are missing depends on performing a significant piece of work. For example, if Team Requestor is attempting to replicate Team Reluctant's work, as they might if conducting an audit, Team Reluctant can omit an element that isn't actually required until late in the effort. In the interim, the system can produce results that are incorrect but mysteriously so. In some cases, Team Requestor might be able to determine that something is missing only by "debugging" the system.
Irrelevant files
The package delivered to Team Requestor might be a complete set of files, and they might be compatible with each other, but they might represent a run of the system that isn't the run Team Requestor wanted to receive. Another "honest" error.
Missing, incompatible, or incomplete documentation
Most data sets require accompanying documentation, explaining what file contains what data. Think of this documentation as engineer's notes. It tells anyone who wants to replicate the work exactly what to do, and where necessary information and data can be found. And the documentation must be compatible with the files.
Detecting missing documentation is relatively easy, because it isn't there. But detecting incomplete documentation can be difficult, because what you're looking for is what's missing from a possibly impressive looking assemblage of useful documentation. People don't usually notice missing elements until someone needs them. Likewise, incompatible document elements usually look like they fit in. Only when we actually need them do we recognize that they aren't compatible. These tactics often escape Team Requestor's notice until they have caused serious problems.

Finally, there is at least one most delicate tactic. When both teams are elements of the same organization, some members of Team Requestor might actually be loyal to the mission of Team Reluctant — covertly, of course. They can introduce delays and confusion into Team Requestor's activities at any point, if they're carful enough and knowledgeable enough. Go to top Top  Next issue: On Gratuitous Harshness  Next Issue

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