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You need to start somewhere!

You need to come up with something, so keep it simple. Even if it starts out with only six words, you can always add more later.

Sometimes, you just can’t win. I recently ( commented on not having anything to write about. Then, earlier today, I found myself staring into space, trying to figure out how to decide among a dozen different ways to describe what I wanted to talk about.

I wrote previously about Process Zombies (, and noted that it’s important to have processes which adapt and evolve according to current needs. All true, but what do we do when new requirements hit and we are in the thick of things?

In trying to describe a situation like this, I thought about the “spreadsheet hell” that so many live through. In the face of critical priorities, a simple spreadsheet can be the birthplace of new processes, or the proverbial road paved with good intentions.

I could also have commented on the idea of “perfect is the enemy of good” (, or how this sort of issue relates to the “Agile mindset”, which leads to a rabbit-hole about the distinctions which can be drawn between project work and operational work.

In the end, I elected to follow the stream of consciousness, and I ended up with the great XKCD comic about optimization:

So, what sort of situation are we talking about?

Usually some urgent issue which isn’t covered under current processes. And what do we generally do in situations like this, when everyone is checking in and following up and escalating?

Well, actually, “panic” is the usual answer, and exactly what we need to avoid.

Let me “paint a picture”, as they say...

Some situation occurs, which gets the attention of senior leadership at an organization. In a well-run organization, the leadership team will gather, break down the issue, decide what needs to be done, decide on roles and responsibilities, and then move on to the next issue on the agenda.

This all makes sense, and usually works pretty well for well-defined processes, but what happens if the situation is different, complex, and requires work across multiple groups?

Generally, the same thing, though probably with a bit more attention paid to defining responsibility and who is leading the initiative.

Let’s say that Alice (last seen in and Bob have a meeting, and include Carol and Dan in the discussion about what to do. After a very productive discussion, they decide how they want to handle things, and who is responsible for what.

All ok, right? But what happens if we go down a level or two?

Well, quite often, Bob, Carol, and Dan will meet with their team leads, explain the situation and priorities, and then delegate different roles to different people. These team leads will then have meetings with their teams to do the same.

Do you see where this is going?

Wholly aside from the inevitable changes in the message as it cascades through different branches of the organization (consider the game “telephone”, in which people whisper a message in a chain and the message is often radically different by the time it reaches the end of the chain), different leaders will have different understandings and different ways of explaining things. They may also leave out details which they consider sensitive or irrelevant, or add issues which are relevant to their group but may not be to others.

Worried yet?

Of course it gets worse. Once the messages start flowing through the organization, there will be other discussions, where people who received different versions of the original message compare notes and get confused when they hear apparently conflicting stories.

Let’s say that Bob talked to Beth and Bert, focusing on the technology side of things and Carol talked to Cam and Cal, focusing on the finance side of things. Eventually, Bud and Cass compare notes and realize that they have no idea what is happening. Bud heard bits and pieces from Beth and Cal, while Cass heard different bits and pieces from Bert and Cam.

And no one has reached out to Dan’s team yet...

Chaos ensues.

At this point, anyone who has seen this before is probably remembering parts of their lives they would rather not dwell on... But wait! There’s MORE!

Each of the teams are probably going to start figuring out how best to manage the work, and start building processes which are not only different, but probably conflict with one another in some way.

This is, shall we say, sub-optimal, but what can we do about it?

While we could talk about how the leadership team could do things better, the issue is normally broader, and lower down in the organization. I may comment on how leadership can help avoid issues like this at some future date.

Organizations with lots of “silos” and insular groups who don’t interact much with other teams encounter this a lot more frequently than more open teams. In general, though, communication and transparency go a VERY long way towards resolving situations like this.

As an alternative, what if Bob, Carol, and Dan met with their team leads TOGETHER, summarized the project and the impact on each team, then had a discussion / forum to determine how best to manage the initiative? Then, if each team identified a point-person for all future communication/interaction on the initiative, could that have made things easier?


But... what if some parts of the organization are “closed” (either due to culture or other things such as confidentiality requirements)? Or what if certain team members simply cannot see eye to eye on anything?

Doesn’t really matter, actually. There is still enormous value in having better communication and processes across teams. If an open and collaborative culture already exists, the communication will be easy, and it should be relatively easy to define some simple processes to help everyone clarify how they work. If, on the other hand, one or more of the parties are “closed” (for whatever reason), it’s helpful to have a channel for communication and issue resolution, and documenting that process will help reduce the issues which are often encountered in such cases.

After all, we’re supposed to be on the same team, aren’t we?



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