Work Theater: The "Game" At Some Large Bureaucratic Companies

Large companies are often bureaucracies. As I write this, I am mostly thinking of a particular large bureaucratic company that I will not explicitly name. But anyways....

Pressure "From Above"

Some of these large bureaucratic companies are made up of smaller teams that work semi-autonomously.

There are a lot of good things about having semi-autonomous teams, within a large company. (The good parts of it being that they are smaller and they are more autonomous.)

But how these smaller teams as organized can matter a lot.

(At least) at (some of) these large bureaucratic companies, these smaller teams get pressure "from above" (of various flavors). Or at least, certain people on the team do.

Project managers do. Product managers / producers do. Engineering leads do. Engineering managers do. But some of these people will from time to time pass on this pressure they get to others on the team.

Don't Help

A result of this pressure "from above" (that I have witnessed) is that not only will members on teams often not help members of other teams (unless there is some form of sanction or "compensation") but team members who do choose to help other people in other teams (due to their own volition) are told not to.

The success of the team is trying to be optimized over the success of the department or the company.

Although sometimes even that is not true. And what is really happening is that the success of one of more managers is often being optimized over the sucess of the team, the department and the company.

There are large costs to this. Both monetary and social. And the monetary cost is non-trivial and quite significant.

Work Theater

A lot of what goes on at these companies is that instead of actually getting work done, a significant amount of time is spent making it look like you are working.

A lot of time is being spent to create a paper trail, that is meant to act as a way of justifying a budget.

In part, this is a result of attempting to appease the pressure "from above".

At one particular company -- the one I am mostly talking about in this article -- there were 2 very very successful projects in the company recently. Both of them were able to (somehow) escape this work theater, disappear for 6 and 12 months respectively, and produce something excellent.

(Note that this isn't to say that no work gets done in the work theater. It is just that you are fighting against this work theater to actually get work done. And that the project as a whole may fail largely because of it.)

Goodhart's Law

There are certain aspects of this (not explicitly mentioned here) that are examples of Goodhart's Law. Here's one way Goodhart's Law has been phrased:

When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure'. Universities optimise for grades instead of knowledge. Politicians seek popularity, not the public good. Tomatoes are bred into heavy, flavorless sacks of water. Soviet Nail factories, when instructed to produce a certain number of nails per month, produced tiny, useless nails. Science is no different.