The measure of a health in an organisation is the willingness to put oneself at personal risk or hardship for the betterment of the team and the trust that colleagues will do the same

Hardly a revelatory notion and yet while I was sitting drinking my Sunday morning coffee the idea seemed to drive a needle directly toward the heart of organisational dysfunction, illustrating a set of nebulous and seemingly disconnected problems behind a singular easy to grasp notion.

One that I am unclear that will hold up and yet one that I feel is worth exploring literally.

The many and varied organisational dysfunctions

Organisations are not necessarily linearly predictable in their output and it can thus be difficult for an outsider to see whether a given organisation is “dysfunctional”, relatively speaking. Indeed, it is difficult even from those who are trapped in this organisational quagmire to remember what a high performing organisation feels like — some may never have experienced it at all.

I would conjecture that I have indeed experienced teams that are “high performing” indeed — teams that in retrospect have accomplished things that others are seemingly fundamentally incapable of. On a practical level such a team was able to accomplish the implementation of CI/CD, monitoring, incident response, system stability and reliable deliverables within a months of getting together. However, I find myself now in an organisation which despite having several orders of magnitude more resources is several times less effective.

The primary characteristic that differentiates the teams is that which is in the title — abdication of self in favor of a team goal. However, there are symptoms abound which are far easier to spot than the aggregate “organisational exhaustion” that destroys the functioning of a team:

lack of interest, enthusiasm, or concern

Perhaps the first sign of “burnout” or “exhaustion” is the inability to find the energy to give enough fucks to solve a problem.

This generally presents a set of “known problems”:

  • CI/CD fails constantly
  • Releases cause everyone fear
  • Organisational communication is haphazard and expensive
  • Work happens in a vacuum and without feedback

Each of these problems eats some chunk of energy from teams. The aggregate of this energy can be so expensive the team is unable to “pay down” these organisational debts and is thus stuck in an “organisational poverty trap”

Teams with no energy are unable to fix the fundamental, emotionally expensive issues that present with an organisation from time to time and are instead doomed to suffer the slow burn of the acrid build up of fuckery.

one’s personal interest or advantage, especially when pursued without regard for others

When working within a team there are invariably opportunities to further one's own career; hierarchical organisations with linear pay increases for assumed power are a “zero sum” or single winner game.

However, exactly this incentive prevents colleagues from fully trusting that given their own sacrifice for the betterment of the team they will be fully recognized for the contributions they’ve made — instead, those who assume organisational power will be able to leverage team successes for their own benefit.

Any success requires personal abdication from team members over any period of time — even if that abdication is to delegate to a colleague with a superior idea, or who is in a better position to implement a well sought after feature. In an organisation lacking strong leadership with a social awareness it is even possible to “sell out” colleagues for personal benefit.

the feeling that someone or something cannot be relied upon

The invariable, but not exclusive cost of the above self interest — distrust prevents colleagues venturing any sort of vulnerability.

Vulnerability is an absolutely fundamental requirement to high performing organisations. It allows:

  • Ideas to be challenged without a critique of person
  • Ideas to be suggested that are initially ostensibly nuts
  • Norms to be challenged

Distrust is vulnerability poison.

the theory or practice of shielding a country’s domestic industries from foreign competition by taxing imports

or alternatively

The shit umbrella

Protectionism is a pocket of distributed organisational power offering some of the solutions to the aforementioned problems at significant cost:

  • Those who support the shit umbrella becoming overburdened
  • Those who support the shit umbrella having their own agenda

A shit umbrella has all of the aforementioned problems at an industrial scale: distrust, apathy and pockets of decision making quagmire.

It is a well intentioned but organizationally unhealthy requirement.

is the state of overthinking about a decision to the point that a choice never gets made.

An organisation that has a low level of trust requires a high burden of proof to change. Unfortunately, that burden of proof is usually not universally nor systematically applied — rather, it is a function of those who are in a low power organisational position.

Meeting this burden of proof is often an impossible task for those who are asked to meet it given their resources. Accordingly, initiatives can only be driven by few individuals for which this burden of proof is not applied.

These decisions are eventually accepted in an unquestioned way by a beaten down workforce, destined for failure in the invariable bike-sheddary that follows accepting a nonsensical decision.

Pushing Back

These problems are each expensive, complex and time consuming to unpack. Much like an ailment, prevention is far better than a cure.

That said, it is possible to start reversing this trend and to increase the performance of a given organisation. Further, the response to do so is immediate — there is generally little investment required to do so though the changes must be given over a period of time.

I would start by making the following interventions:

Any value structure for which it is possible to abdicate one's own betterment must be in service of a shared goal or outcome.

All changes, promotions, demotions, disciplinary actions and rewards must be in service to these goals. That isn’t to say that each employee only derives value from achieving those goals directly but rather each team member should be thanked for their contributions to the aggregate team success, and the aggregate team success measured against company goals.

Practically this means interventions such as:

  • Objectives and key results (OKRs)
  • Publishing long term business strategy
  • Centralizing communications channels between organisational leadership and front line employees
  • Deliberate pruning of communications channels that are only used by small sections of the organisation

The notion of “leadership” is a difficult one to quantify indeed, but a cognizance of the problems above, cognizance in how one’s own example can either improve or exacerbate the above and courage to dive into these complex problems on a minute level is perhaps a good start for organisational leaders.

Organisational power will either exacerbate or improve these problems at a rate of $POWER * IMPACT . It is possible that this change can come from mid or lower level managers but that comes means either they’re building their own power-base (the aforementioned protectionism) or they have disproportionate organisational power for their position — neither of which are good characteristics to have.

Practically this means interventions such as:

  • Having domain specialists set up outside normal authority to assess the health of an organisation
  • Distributing organisational power along a minimal hierarchy

A necessary precursor to dismantling some of the protectionism inherent in organisations that are difficult to work with is the establishing of empathy between people within teams, followed by teams and so fourth as a larger organisational unit.

Empathy allows a level of understanding which, in turn, creates a set of predictability. Predictability allows a certain level of trust to be bestowed from one organisational section to the other.

The environment in which distrust and the consequential protectionism is unlikely to yield any sort of improvement in and of itself, despite other interventions that may be made. Instead it will be far easier to engender these “moments of forgiveness” outside the professional context in an environment in which all colleagues are placed at a “zero ground” and must work together in an environment they’re not comfortable with to succeed.

Practically this means interventions such as:

  • Sponsored games / activities outside the professional context
  • Improvement days / hackathons where there are no professional deliverables
  • The sharing of our non-professional selves in the professional context

Psychological safety is a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking. It can be defined as “being able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career”

A result of the combination of empathy and the repayment of trust, colleagues must feel a sense of “safety’ as they gradually expose more of themselves to the team — as they become more vulnerable.

The addition of psychological safety allows a greater propagation of ideas and a level of respect and discussion given to ideas that might otherwise be dismissed out of hand.

Given this industry is one that makes its dramatic gains in efficiency by taking moments of unique and counter-intuitive insight and replicating them for the general public, such moments are the most valuable insights of a company.

Practically this means interventions such as:

  • Blameless failure analysis and post mortem with organisational accountability to change
  • Leaders showing vulnerable aspects of themselves
  • A “just culture”

concerned with the principles of right and wrong behavior

Given a set of principles about how an organisation should behave and what is healthy for this organisation morality is about adhering to those principles without regard for the consequences.

Unfortunately organisations are a complex and ambiguous place and should they began to “derail” or to “rot” in the ways identified above the social failure can quickly cascade, creating a hostile work environment very quickly.

The way in which these situations are avoided is to adhere to a set of principles previously defined as good for organisational health at all times; even when those principles are expensive to adhere to or when an organisation is otherwise in chaos.

Practically this means interventions such as:

  • Organisational leaders demonstrating these values at all times and in all cases
  • The publication and agreement of these principles such that all team members can be held accountable to them
  • Identifying and surfacing colleagues to retain these characteristics in difficult situations for leadership

to worry about minor things

A social environment is one in which violations to the social norm are punished much more quickly then technical violations or other non-detail oriented systems. Society is unique in that such violations will set in people's mind a general characteristic, and subsequent violations will only serve to reinforce the image created by the first violation.

These small details left uncorrected can fester, poisoning relationships and spreading organisational distrust.

Accordingly it is important to recognize that in the vast majority of interactions our adherence to the things that we have promised must be close to perfect. Further, and perhaps far more difficult is that we must make clear when we are unable to deliver and why.

“No, I can’t promise that” is often a kindness — difficult though it may be.

Practically this means:

  • Limiting the responsibility of organisational leaders
  • Having a process of having that responsibility documented and periodically reviewed

A particularly nasty aspect of being in a high power position in the organisation is that those in high power positions are not held to the same standards as others, and may be pissing people off without knowing it (or at least, without being viscerally aware of it).

No guarantee of success

Reparations for a “burned” culture come at a high cost. It may be that it is impossible to fully repair an environment that is “too broken”; those who work in the environment may be so entrenched in the protectionist behavior they dislike shifting to the world of less power inherent in a “trust driven” organisation.

However, time invariably marches on and we find ourselves part of the organisations we do. So long as we choose to stay we may as well attempt to contribute to the betterment of the company in general.

It is my opinion that it is unacceptable to simply “take a paycheck”; to stay at a company without intending to improve the world via the service it offers. See “Apathy” above.

In Conclusion

Organisations are invariably social systems and a surprisingly small amount of time is dedicated to the understanding, maintenance and improvements of this system.

These lessons have been driven home for me particularly sharply as part of my transition between organisations but were present to differing degrees in all organisations that I have been associated with.

Being systematic in including employee health and happiness in key business outcomes will create teams in which the better ideas propagate and teams abdicate themselves for the organisational goals. In the tech industry there is (or should be) little in the way of repetitive labor; our success or failure is defined by how well we can understand and reproduce an insight for consumption.

Take care of your teams. At personal cost.