Leland Teschler, Executive Editor
On Twitter @DW_LeeTeschler
Back in the dark ages when I was a young engineer, a colleague told me an interesting story. He’d just finished a lengthy project developing a complicated piece of test gear. He happened to visit another division of his company and was shocked to find they’d developed a similar piece of gear – completely unaware they were essentially duplicating what he’d already done. Even worse, the solution they’d come up with was markedly less capable than what my colleague had created.
Their whole program had been wasteful and unnecessary. It happened simply because no one had bothered to look at what was transpiring outside a few corridors of an engineering department.
I am sure the engineers on the project my colleague discovered would have said that they had worked extremely hard and had put in long hours laboring on that irrelevant piece of test gear. Their efforts are an example of what Gaylan Nielson and Brent Peterson would call fake work. The two management consultants have encountered situations similar to what my colleague experienced many times. They saw the same patterns so frequently that they wrote a book outlining their observations (Fake Work: Why People Are Working Harder Than Ever But Accomplishing Less, and How to Fix the Problem).
A lot of the hazards the two consultants point out will probably sound familiar even to engineers with only a few years of experience. For example, the two warn of managers who claim all tasks are equally important. When all work is treated as equal, fake work is the inevitable outcome, they say. You know you’re in trouble, they explain, when you ask supervisors to help prioritize and they just add tasks to your lists. Or when you ask for priorities, your supervisor gives you the wrong answer because he/she doesn’t actually know which tasks are important. When these things happen, you are probably not going to like the end result.
Had the two consultants been aware of the situation with my colleague’s test equipment, they probably would have said the root cause was a group of managers who were isolationists, egocentric, and who may have been obsessive organizers. The two advise that when employees find themselves reporting to people like this, they should figure out how to avoid falling into the fake-work traps managers set.
Nielson and Peterson say a lack of communication is generally a big cause of situations where people follow the wrong schedule, focus on the wrong project, or give a task the wrong amount of effort. The primary cause: Many companies have developed strategies that their workers never hear about. Then all the work that went into strategizing in the first place is fake work because no marching orders resulting from this arduous, complex, and sometimes costly effort get into the hands of employees.
And in the case of my colleague, lack of communication also gets the blame when a whole engineering department doesn’t bother to ask whether the project they’re about to embark on has even been done outside of the 50-ft² area where their desks sit.