Saturday, February 25, 2012

Organizational Dysmorphia

In my consulting work, I've all too often observed organizations that have chosen to structure themselves in a way that is at odds with their stated goals and objectives. In extreme cases, the structure of such an organization actively subverts its raison d'ĂȘtre. I term such self-defeating structures as Organizational Dysmorphia.

A recurring example is when the development and quality-assurance teams are isolated from each other and evaluated on mutually inconsistent criteria. The development team is measured on the amount of functionality (feature-points, story-points, etc.) that they deliver to the QA team. The latter, in turn, are measured on the number of defects they can find in the software they receive from the development team. This arrangement actively dissolves any collective focus on quality and instead promotes a highly localized -- almost selfish -- way of thinking about one's job.

I observed another, more subtle example recently at a company. Some developers were responsible for creating interfaces. Others were responsible for implementing those interfaces. Apart from not promoting collective code ownership, this doesn't sound so bad at first. However, when you reprimand and reward (financially and otherwise) the different individuals based on exactly how the resulting software got broken, things quickly spiral down into a finger-pointing, responsibility-avoidance culture rather than one that values collective effort towards relentless quality improvement. This is what I found at that company.

Organizational Dysmorphia is consistent with and is a specialization of Conway's Law. Conway's Law is neutral: organizations are constrained to produce systems that mirror the communication structure of these organizations. Organizational Dysmorphia is the subcategory that deals with severely abnormal and dysfunctional instances of Conway's Law.

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