Organizational Antipatterns – how to diagnose and repair failing organizations

Some example antipatterns from our book “Antipatterns: Indentification, Refactoring and Management” a guide to effective team and project management.

Cultural or Environmental antipatterns are those that are not attributable to a single person, incident, or practice. Instead these are antipatterns due to a series of poorly thought-out strategies or environmental changes that create a toxic atmosphere, a negative organizational culture.

MCj03207040000[1] Divergent Goals


Central Concept


Everyone must pull in the same direction. There is no room for individual or hidden agendas that don’t align with those of the business.




There are several direct and indirect problems with Divergent Goals.


Ø  Hidden and personal agendas divergent to the mission of an organization starve resources from strategically important tasks.

Ø  Organizations become fractured as cliques form to promote their own self-interests.

Ø  Decisions are second-guessed and subject to “review by the replay official” as staff try to decipher genuine motives for edicts and changes.

Ø  Strategic goals are hard enough to attain when everyone is working towards them, without complete support they become impossible and put risk to the organization.




Everyone in an organization must understand the top-level objectives and priorities. It is the reason behind mission statements on coffee mugs and business cards, for example. The organization has tried to condense its strategic goals into concise, evangelical snippets of wisdom so that every employee understands the objectives of the company and, therefore, themselves. Unfortunately the reality seldom meets the lofty ambition. Most employees look upon mission statements with cynicism because they usually seem like trite clichés in the face of real adversity.


At one aerospace company we saw a mission statement on everyone's ID badge that included: "No post-delivery failure; Always on time" – as if the mission would be to deliver faulty products late! At the same organization we witnessed the reality of Divergent Goals within a single plant.


In conversations with the Director of Manufacturing the changing business world for post-cold-war defense contractors was explained. The days of cost-plus contracts were over and they now had to compete for commercial and government contracts with fixed price tenders. This change had to be reflected in the priorities in production. In the days of cost-plus, where the customer (government) paid whatever it cost the contractor to develop and deliver a system or product, plus some predetermined percentage, the government contracts always came first no-matter the cost (since those cost and more would all be recovered). Nowadays a government contract was viewed just the same as a commercial contract so was prioritized in the same way...the most valuable contracts came first and so on.


Unfortunately this culture had not been disseminated sufficiently through the plant. In talking to the Delivery Manager responsible for packaging and shipping products, the priorities were very different. He still set his priorities as though the cold-war was still going strong and this was clear for all to see. As in most departments at this plant, a whiteboard hung on the wall with the list of job priorities clearly displayed. At the top were AOFG and SIFP followed by a list of other acronyms. These top two were, “Aircraft on Foreign Ground” and “Ship In Foreign Port.” This was a clear indication that he still considered the military contracts to be the most important, regardless of the business impact. When questioned about this he made his position crystal clear. He was from a time when they were ostensibly a military contractor, he was previously military himself, and he didn’t care what the "company line" was, he will always put military shipments to the top of the list even if it means commercial products with deadlines and delay penalties must wait.




In every significant endeavor we can expect contrary viewpoints and opposing beliefs. These differences of opinion are natural and healthy as they stimulate innovation and risk-taking that are central to success. There is a point, however, where the strategic goals must be set and everyone must be on the same page in trying to attain them. This requires that the goals are meaningful, not mutually-exclusive, and most importantly fully understood by everyone. Problems arise when these goals are not widely understood or communicated, or if individuals or groups unilaterally decide to work towards alternative goals.




It is under your control if you’re currently not working towards the organizational goals. You really have 3 options:

1.         Get in line.

2.         If you feel the company line is wrong, get involved and be a legitimate agent of change, or

3.         Leave.


Text Box: Self-repair

It is under your control if you’re currently not working towards the organizational goals. You really have 3 options:
1.	Get in line.
2.	If you feel the company line is wrong, get involved and be a legitimate agent of change, or
3.	Leave.
Band Aid


There is no band aid for Divergent Goals…a quick-and-dirty fix can’t effect cultural change. The only short-term fix is therefore micro-management! Take control of all decisions so that those promoting a different path are removed from the loop. This will be the beginning of a bumpy road though, leading to Institutional Mistrust and Ant Colonies!




Since Divergent Goals can arise accidentally and intentionally there are two sets of refactorings.


Dealing with the first problem of comprehension and communication involves explaining the impact of day-to-day decisions on larger objectives. This was the case with the shipping priorities at the aerospace company of the vignette. The manager didn’t understand the bigger picture. This is more than providing a coffee mug with the mission statement, however. Remember that the misunderstanding is not because the staff are not aware of the mission or goals; organizations are generally very good at disseminating them. It is that they don’t understand that their decisions have any impact on those goals. They have a very narrow perspective on the organization and that must be broadened.


The second problem of intentionally charting an opposing course is far more insidious, however, and requires considerable intervention and oversight. The starting point is to recognize the disconnect between their personal goals and those of the organization. Why do they feel that the stated goals are incorrect? If the motives really are personal, that they feel their personal success cannot come with success of the organization, radical changes are needed. Otherwise the best recourse is to get them to buy into the organizational goals. This is easiest achieved if every stakeholder is represented in the definition and dissemination of the core mission and goals, and subsequently kept informed, updated and represented.




MCBD08156_0000%5b1%5d  Dunkirk Spirit



Central Concept


Despite terrible planning and awful decision-making, valiant efforts by good people, usually “on the front lines” get the job done.




While success against great odds should be lauded, success despite woeful management and ineffectual leadership should not. The danger is that when this is performed regularly, the poor planning and decision making is not identified and allowed to continue...success is achieved despite the worst efforts of the administration, and the administration thinks it's because of them! Workers are not given the credit they deserve and they see their superiors getting credit they don’t. This can only cause disharmony and discord.




It seems that Dunkirk Spirit is called upon in every software development project these days. Ed Yourdon called them “Death March” projects [Yourdon] and suggested that they are the norm rather than the exception. Software project managers have failed for a long time to accurately estimate the time, effort and cost of development projects. Either that, or they consistently disregard empirical evidence and intentionally create overly-optimistic schedules.


Since 1995 the consulting firm The Standish Group has published a semi-annual assessment of the state of the software industry called the Chaos Report. This widely cited report generally portrays the software industry as being in, what else, chaos with many projects ending unacceptably. These so-called “challenged” projects experienced such problems as cancellations, late delivery, scaled-down functionality, and high defect rates. For example, in 2004, 82% of all software projects suffered delivery time overruns [Standish].


So, what do you think is happening in these “challenged” projects? Developers, analysts and architects are not resting on their laurels as time ticks by and costs ratchet up; they are working round the clock trying to get back on track. This isn’t because the task is too hard, or the technologies too unreliable; it happens too often for that to be the case. Responsibility – blame – rests with the managers and their superiors who refuse to accept the realities of large-scale software development.


As is so often the case, this is not solely the domain of software engineers, however. A similar experience was told by a fellow plane passenger on a recent business trip. Harry was a project manager for a construction company that specialized in commercial office buildings. His company usually acted as a subcontractor working on the steel substructure so their schedule was largely dictated by the master schedule created by the primary contractor for the project. He couldn’t remember the last time that schedule was remotely attainable. Now, this wasn’t purely the fault of the primary contractors. The steelwork contracts were won on tenders submitted by Harry’s bosses and these included work-breakdowns and schedules that were knowingly unattainable (optimistic was how they characterized them), just so they could win. Harry was then stuck trying to make them work while under the screw of the primary contractor and it was left to him to turn that screw on his subcontractors and laborers. 


Towards the end of every contract his weekends would be spent on-site fighting the inevitable fires as deliveries arrived late, materials arrived out of specification, laborers were absent, etc. He was clearly very frustrated with the situation and felt that his own reputation and character were on the line when deadlines were missed or quality was compromised. To compound his issues, he was also working under a Spineless Executive that refused to attend subcontractor meetings with the primary contractor and would send Harry to face their wrath instead. Harry was gutting it out since he was approaching retirement, but he had to fill-in for so many younger managers that had quit under the conditions. His laborers were also growing sick of the constant time pressures and it was becoming increasingly difficult to find good workers willing to subject themselves to such compressed schedules without additional pay. If you’re reading this Harry, we feel your pain, and hope that you enjoyed San Diego.




The 'Dunkirk Miracle' is remembered by many for the bravery and valiant efforts of merchant navy, local fishermen, and every other type of sea-farer with as much as a harbor dingy crossing the English Channel in rescue of the tragically outnumbered and out-armored troops of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) that had been driven back across France and was now trapped in the small port town of Dunkirk.


The BEF was a respected fighting unit and was deployed across Europe in the early days of World War II in order to halt the advance of the Nazi war machine as it marched across Western Europe. The rescue mission, Operation Dynamo, saved the lives of over 300000 allied troops and is remembered with great pride in Britain. We forget, conveniently, about the horrendous planning and pitiful intelligence that led to such a catastrophic situation in the first place.


Allied commanders, as they appeared wont to do, drastically underestimated the size, power and strategy of the Nazi forces that would oppose them. The blitzkrieg that rained down upon the BEF and the remainder of the French Army devastated their lines and pushed them all the way back from the Franco-Belgian border to Dunkirk. Now desperate, the British Admiralty called upon the 'Little Ships of Dunkirk' (a motley collection of hundreds of hastily recruited fishing vessels and pleasure craft) to save their beleaguered brethren. It was a testament to the British never-say-die attitude in the face of incredible odds without doubt even despite the fact that they had to leave over 40,000 French troops and most of the equipment (estimated at over 50,000 vehicles) behind.




Managers that allow Dunkirks” to occur ought to be on the front lines themselves. Don’t allow a Dunkirk to happen, but when it does, roll up your sleeves and get in there with the troops to resolve the crisis. Your leadership will  inspire these heroes and make them feel appreciated.


Band Aid


You can’t always get the credit you deserve. Take solace in the success of the organization. Eventually, the real heroes will be found out.




Yourdon’s preferred solution to Death March projects is to resign. That might be the most efficient choice, but it is not a particularly practical one in the current economy. Instead, the significant drivers that create the need for Dunkirk Spirit must be dealt with. Kent Beck realized this and in eXtreme Programming he introduced the notion of sustainable pace. That the 40 hour week should be respected and if overtime was required for consecutive weeks the plan should be revised. He was not so naïve to think this one change to the prevailing wisdom would be sufficient so he included practices that promote teamwork and cooperation over competition and negotiation including collective code ownership (no one person “owns” any particular aspect of the project) and on-site customers that facilitates communication and collaboration between stakeholders.


Even if these measures seem extreme (well they would wouldn’t they?), the principles they represent should be respected. Using time-to-market pressures as an excuse for ridiculous schedules really just masks the real reasons that managers overwork staff: political capital, one-upmanship, disrespect or hubris.




[Standish] The Standish Group International, Chaos Report, 2004.


[Yourdon] E. Yourdon. “Death March,” 2nd Ed. Prentice-Hall, 2003.