The Tragedy of Well-Intentioned Organizational Overload

Or Why “My New Organizational Practices are Righteous, But Your Additions are Ridiculous Red Tape”

Last week, I was sitting in a faculty meeting led by an enthusiastic Stanford colleague who is charged with revamping the teaching evaluation system that students use to assess our classes. The new system does seem to have improved features — in particular, it allows faculty to identify learning goals and to select and write questions customized to each class. I appreciate the work the committee has done on the evaluations, but to be honest, I couldn’t tell whether the new system would be better or worse than the old system (and beyond his enthusiasm, he didn’t present any arguments that I found convincing). But there was one thing that I am 100% sure will happen: This new system will require several more hours of work every year from every faculty member than the old system.

Then it struck me: These evaluations are yet another example of a disease that plagues every organization that I know — something that my friend and co-author Huggy Rao have been talking about a lot as part of new Designing Organizational Change Project at Stanford. Sometimes we call it “The tragedy of well-intentioned organizational overload.” It happens because so many organizations are filled with well-meaning people who keep adding little bits of complexity and friction. Sometimes, as in our new evaluations, the additional load is added for the most noble of reasons. Other times, their motives are less noble — if still well-intentioned. They call meetings, add new rules, or require extra paperwork to demonstrate their value to their peers and bosses.

Many organizations make matters worse by paying more money to managers who lead bigger teams. So they have perverse incentives for hiring more and more underlings even if they are unnecessary, and in turn, each new hire adds their own rules and procedures –and calls more meetings — to justify their existence (and may go on to hire their own underlings).

As my title suggests, most people who add complexity mean well (or at least have incentives for doing so), while at the same time, see the complexity that others add as unnecessary red tape that slows and frustrates the organization. This syndrome reminds Huggy and me of one of the most famous economics articles, Garrett Hardin’s The Tragedy of the Commons, in which he used the analogy of a pasture that was open to all “herdsmen.” He showed that, even after the herdsmen have added so many animals that it damages the collective good, each herdsman still has individual incentives for adding more of their own animals. In Hardin’s words:

Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit — in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.

In much the same way, because organizations are filled with people with many individual incentives (to gain status, to do interesting work, to make more money) to add cognitive load and few incentives to reduce the load on others, too many are filled with members who spend their days — as one executive described it — “feeling as if they are walking muck.” The onslaught of overload steals their time, leaves them emotionally exhausted, and undermines the organization’s ability to do its main work. At Stanford, some of us worry that such pressures sometimes undermine our ability to do research and to teach our students — although, to our leaders’ credit, there are some influential teams working on reducing overload and friction right now. I applaud their efforts and hope they succeed.

I can’t promise you any magic solutions to this “Tragedy.” But there are a few guidelines and ideas that you might keep in mind if you and your colleagues are bent on stemming overload in your organization:

1. Are you rewarding and engaging in disciplined subtraction? Check out how Dropbox removed scheduled meetings from employees calendars and changed norms about calling meetings, attending meetings, and walking out of meetings. Or note how BuildDirect selects and stays focused on just five strategic goals at a time.

2. The old saying that “many hands make light work” is a dangerous half-truth. Adding more people increases coordination problems and interpersonal conflict. Be especially wary if your incentive system rewards leaders for overseeing bigger teams and having more direct reports.

3. Do the people who add new practices, rules, meetings, and functions ALSO understand what outcomes are most critical to the success of the organization, who does that work, and what those people need to succeed and remain committed? Too often, friction is added by people who are myopic about their particular function — be it finance, HR, PR, legal — people who don’t understand or forget to think about the employees who are critical to an organization’s success and the customers they serve. As Huggy Rao and I wrote in Scaling Up Excellence, ‘skilled leaders wield their power to eliminate needless friction and complexity — not to burden employees with “rules, tools, and fools” that make it tougher to do their jobs and that waste money and talent.’

In one large software firm we studied, the CEO was concerned it was taking too long for even simple products to come to market. After digging into the problem, he concluded that the engineers who designed new products were constantly stalled (and frustrated) by piles of red tape and by having to seek approvals from so many people before even a simple product could ship. The CEO announced to the entire company (and repeated in hundreds of conversations) that the most important people in the company were the engineers who designed new products, and that everyone –starting with him — were responsible for helping them succeed and making their work less frustrating. As a result, far more decision authority was given to the small scrum teams that used agile methods to develop the firm’s software. Management’s role was usually limited to just two “approvers:” One sponsor to remove roadblocks and one coach to provide vision. The rest of the decision was left to scrum teams that knew the products and customers best.

This is my first Medium post. I am experimenting with how to use this platform and am considering moving some of the best content from Work Matters, my old Typepad blog, to Medium. I would appreciate your feedback on this post, ideas other topics I might write about, and suggestions about which of my old posts might find a new life at Medium. Thanks so much.