Inside the Miscellaneous Folder

by Venkat on July 23, 2013

In any workflow taxonomy for classifying anything from individual to-d0 lists and desk drawers to countries and large corporations, there are things that require more trouble to classify than they are worth. If you’ve done your job right, you’ll achieve a 80-20 split, where 20% of the taxonomy captures 80% of the action in clean-edged ways, and the remaining 80% that contains the 20% of special cases, outliers, exceptions and so, can all be lumped together under something analogous to a folder marked “miscellaneous.”

Every organization scheme, if it is useful at all, handles a dynamic flow of action. The action enters through some equivalent of an inbox, evolves at varying rates through the taxonomic scheme, and exits through some equivalent of an archival scheme combined with a trash can. Between entrance and exit, the flow divides itself into the ordered part of the organization scheme and the miscellaneous folder.

For a corporation, the inbox is usually the sales pipeline and the miscellaneous folder is often the CEO’s office. For a country, it is a mix of domestic and international economic, political and military “issues” that converge on the governance apparatus in the country’s capital. In the case of the military, the “miscellaneous” folder is often the special forces.

We recognize the need for the organization scheme to evolve with the flow it is processing, but it is usually hard to operationalize this basic idea. Here’s are some basic principles.

Flow Shifts

When the flow changes, the way we usually handle it is by consigning more of it to the miscellaneous folder. This follows obviously from the fact that the new elements are by definition the ones that are not comprehended by the existing organization scheme.

Depending on urgency and importance, we interrupt normal functioning to cannibalize resources to handle it there, using ad hoc schemes, on a case-by-case basis. This is an opportunistic process and we call people who are good at stealing resources this way resourceful.

You know you have a problem when the miscellaneous folder swells from handling 20% of the flow to 80%. At this point, your organization scheme is adding no value at all, since 20% of the scheme is handling 20% of the flow and 80% is handling 80%. There is no leverage. You might as well dismantle the scheme and let the anarchy of the miscellaneous folder reign everywhere.

Another way to think of this phenomenon is a center-periphery shift. The organization scheme is the center. The miscellaneous folder is the periphery. If the bulk of the mass shifts to the periphery, the whole scheme can collapse, because the load is not distributed according to load-bearing capacity.

There is potential for confusion here. The miscellaneous folder is not the same as the cultural edge/periphery of avant garde artists and Bohemians. These are people who have been left out of the organization scheme altogether, rather than assigned to a critical-but-miscellaneous folder. Organization schemes collapse because overload flows to the schleppy part of the periphery rather than the sexy part.

The solution of course, is to refactor the entire organization scheme, by making the miscellaneous folder legible using a new organization scheme and lumping the now useless old scheme into some sort of new miscellaneous category.

But it is the transition from an efficient triage scheme to deadwood that’s hard to navigate. If you wait till the 80-20/20-80 scheme evolves all the way to an 80-20/80-20 scheme, you’ve basically crash landed and are rebuilding from scratch from a state of inefficient anarchy. The trick is to act early enough that the trough bottoms out at something like 80-20/50-50 or so, at which point aggressive refactoring is initiated.

How do you detect that you’re approaching this condition? The key is to monitor stress levels being endured by your “buck stops here” people. For individuals, it is useful to think of yourself as wearing multiple hats in different work contexts (home office, work office, coffee shop, with and without a computer, on smartphone at airport) and tag the most stressful hat as “it.”

For me, it is my desk at home where unprocessed paperwork and administrative overhead tends to pile up. On bad days I avoid even looking at my desk before hurrying out to work in a more ordered compartment in my life at the coffee shop. But mostly, I manage to spend enough time wearing my at-desk hat to avert collapse.

Stop-Loss People

I think of these buck-stops-here people (or hat roles) as stop-loss people, because without them staying in their roles, critical work would not get done. They provide the surge capacity for an overflowing miscellaneous folder. If you don’t have such people and your work is in trouble, you’re basically screwed.

These people are the miscellany-handling resources in your organization scheme. Any halfway rational organization scheme tends to allocate people who like order to the most ordered part of the organization, and people who can handle chaos to the chaotic parts. It’s a mirroring principle.

I say people rather than the planning term resources because currently only humans can serve as chaos-handling resources, not machines. A configuration of mechanization and automation is based on assumptions about a state of order.

When an organization scheme is failing, the people (or individual level “hats”) allocated to the ordered parts merely start to get underutilized and bored. There is increasingly less for them to do because the flow is heading elsewhere and being poorly handled there. It is overwhelming the stop-loss people who, due to their personalities (rather than force of authority as in the case of military personnel who are forced to stay due to stop-loss policies), are unable to walk away.

But the chaos wranglers are getting increasingly stressed. These are not people who work set hours, bill by the hour or protect their personal lives with job descriptions.  They are people who, by their very nature, will literally do whatever it takes to get the job done, up to and including killing themselves trying when the load gets impossible and working without pay as long as they are able. They become irreplaceable and they accept the stress that goes with it. Whatever they are being paid is irrelevant because they leave themselves no time to enjoy it.

They may not have obviously “miscellaneous” titles like “head of special projects” or even informal role descriptions like “bagman” or “fixer.” They may have titles that sound like they belong in the orderly part of the scheme, like “Product Manager.”

The best way to find these people is to look for those who seem to be stressed and overworked to the point of exhaustion, but aren’t obviously fools working hard instead of working smart. These are smart people who are working smart 100+ hours a week.

CEOs are much maligned, but they are often the stop-loss people in their organizations. This is obvious from the very nature of a specific-to-general upward flow of work in a hierarchy. If it is classifiable, it will get handled below the CEO.

Startup, Shutdown, Turnaround

There are three phases in any kind of flow when almost all the useful work is being done by stop-loss people: startup, shutdown and turnaround. These regimes of flow are too short-lived to merit their own organization schemes. The load flows towards people in proportion to their capacity to handle it. If an individual buckles, the load gets transferred to whoever picks up the slack.

As the chaos escalates, often all the load will move towards the strongest person. Because the work is so illegible, it can be hard to even appreciate what such people are doing during transitional times.  So their contribution is often thankless. These people often self-select into their roles, and are sometimes not even the ones most incentivized to keep the system functioning. In fact, their role during shutdown regimes is often to keep things going long enough for the rest to escape with minimal injury.

In startups, hackers often underestimate just how much stress and chaos hustlers are keeping at bay so they are free to focus on a relatively clean-edged technical role.

In companies going bankrupt, finance mavens and lawyers do similar under-appreciated work. In civic orders that are collapsing, the police and school teachers may be doing far more than people realize.

Of these three types of phases, it is impossible to protect the stop-loss people in the first two cases.

But in turnaround situations, it may be possible to a limited extent. These are situations where a significant portion of the existing organization scheme (not necessarily the flow itself) can be salvaged and co-opted into the new scheme handling the new pattern of flow. So the path from A to B does not necessarily have to pass through anarchy.

Creating Agility

Where should the function of detecting and responding to flow shifts reside? Since the response requires refactoring the organization scheme itself, and is driven by the logic of a bloated miscellaneous folder, the conclusion is inescapable: flow shift detection and response invariably gravitates to the miscellaneous folder itself, to the stop-loss people. You can’t just designate somebody “organizational change czar” and give them a staff of people who have studied change theories. You need people who can handle the anarchy-surge and navigate the transition.

They are the ones enduring the most pain, and therefore have the most incentive to fix things. They also have the necessary information — the emerging structure of a new flow through the miscellaneous folder. Their cowpaths, paved, may actually form the new organization (though that can lead to dangerously short-sighted design).

What they may lack is the necessary authority.

What sort of authority do they need? First, they need the ability to cannibalize resources from underutilized corners of the old organization. This means authority to destroy. Second, they need the authority to reorganize. 

And they need the authority to act in low-formal-accountability ways, simply because formal accountability implies structure and structure is what they’ve been charged with transforming.

Agile turnarounds are necessarily somewhat undemocratic. Which means you need people with extreme surge capacity, effectiveness and integrity. People who inspire enough trust that those affected by what they do are willing to temporarily suspend some rights.

Unfortunately, the work of reorganizing activities around new patterns of flow often falls to exactly the wrong people: people with too little to do (and therefore motivated to preserve the existing structure), people who are living off the current flow rather than sustaining it (and motivated to create rentier roles for themselves). Or worst of all, people in “innovation” roles who are given the task of inventing the new with no exposure to the collapse of the old or ability to intelligently cannibalize what is dying (a case of the sexy edge being given the job that needs to go to the schleppy edge).

So ironically, to achieve agility, give the reorganization task to your busiest people, just before they reach their breaking point. If they fail at it, you’re in worse trouble than you thought.

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Alexander Boland July 24, 2013 at 12:13 pm

This most recent post has shifted how I’ve been thinking about my own work. The feeling of having few explicit assignments but still being anxious or guilty seems like a good indicator that the work has gotten less legible and will have consequences if neglected for too long.

I’m starting to wonder if sexy “work” is any kind of work at all. Even if I could do nothing but make artisinal coffee mugs all day long, the majority of my tasks would require a lot of patience, even if my advertisements say that my “heart” is in it 100% of the time.

On the (arguably) bright side, it seems like this necessary grind is the great equalizer. Accomplishing anything that makes life feel worthwhile takes quite a bit of schlepping.

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