How to Get Your Company to Stop Killing Cats
We humans are creatures of routine, and there’s some kind of emergent property of groups of humans that makes us, collectively, creatures of rut. This is the reason that corporations tend to have a life trajectory sort of similar to stars, albeit on a much shorter timeline. At various paces, they form up and then reach sort of a moderate, burning equilibrium like our Sol. Eventually however, they bloat into massive giants which is generally the beginning of their death cycle, and, eventually, they collapse in on themselves, either going supernova or drifting off into oblivion as burned out husks. If you don’t believe me, check out the biggest employers of the 1950s, which included such household names as “US Steel” and “Standard Oil.” And, it’s probably a pretty safe bet that in 2050, people will say things like, “oh yeah, Microsoft, I heard of them once when playing Space-Trivial-Pursuit” or “wow, Apple was a major company? That Apple? The one that sells cheap, used hologram machines?” (For what it’s worth, I believe GE and some other stalwarts were on that list as well, so the dying off is common, though not universal)
Yes, in the face of “adapt or die” large companies tend to opt for “die.” Though, “opt” may be a strong word in the sense of agency. It’s more “drift like a car idling toward a cliff a mile away, but inexplicably, no one is turning.” Now, before you get any ideas that I’m about to solve the problem of “how to stop bureaucratic mobs from making ill-advised decisions,” I’m not. I’m really just setting the stage for an observation at a slightly smaller scale.
I’ve worked for and with a number of companies, which has meant that I’ve not tended to be stationary enough to develop the kind of weird, insular thinking that creates the Dead Sea Effect (wow, that’s my third link-back to that article) or, more extremely, Lord of the Flies. I’m not the kids wearing war paint and chasing each other with spears, but rather the Deus Ex Machina marine at the end that walks into the weird company and says, in disbelief, “what are you guys doing?” It’s not exactly that I have some kind of gift for “thinking outside the box” but rather that I’m not burdened with hive mind assumptions. If anything, I’m kind of like a kid that blurts out socially unacceptable things because he doesn’t know any better: “geez, Uncle Jerry, you talk funny and smell like cough medicine.”
You can’t just not kill cats.
What this series of context switches has led me to observe is that organizations make actual attempts to adapt, but at an extremely slow pace and desperately clinging to bad habits. This tends to create a repelling effect for a permanent resident, but a sad, knowing smile for a consultant or job hopper. If you find yourself in this position, here’s a (slightly satirical) narrative that’s a pretty universal description of what happens when you start at (and eventually exit) a place that’s in need of some help.
You get a call from a shop or a person that says, “we need help writing software, can you come in and talk to us for an afternoon?” “Sure,” you say and you schedule some time to head over. When you get there, you notice (1) they have no computers and (2) it smells terrible. “Okay,” you say, hesitantly, “show me what you’re doing!” At this point, they lead you to a room with a state of the art, industrial grade furnace and they say, “well, this is where we round up stray cats and toss them in the furnace, but for some reason, it’s not resulting in software.” Hiding your horror and lying a little, you say, “yeah, I’ve seen this before — your big mistake here is that instead of killing cats, you want to write software. Just get a computer and a compiler and, you know, write the software.”
The next week you come in and the terrible smell is gone, replaced by a lot of yowling and thumping. You walk into the team room and discover a bunch of “software engineers” breathing heavily and running around trying to bludgeon cats with computers. “What are you doing,” you ask. “You’re not writing code or using the compiler — you’re still killing cats.” “Well,” the guy who called you in replies shamefacedly, “we definitely think you’re right about needing computers, and I know this isn’t exactly what you recommended, but you can’t just, like, not kill cats.” “Yes, you can just not kill cats,” you reply. “It’s easy. Just stop it. Here, right now. Hand me that computer, let’s plug it in, and start writing code.” Thinking you’ve made progress, you head out.
The next week, you return and there’s no thundering or yowling, and everyone is quietly sitting and coding. Your work here is done. You start putting together a retrospective and maintenance plans when all of a sudden, you hear the “woosh” of the old oven and get a whiff of something horrible. Exasperated, you march in and demand to know what’s going on. “Oh, that — every time we finish a feature, we throw a bunch of cats in the furnace so that we can start on the next feature.” Now at the end of your rope you restrain the urge to say, “I’m pretty sure you’re just Hannibal Lecter,” opting instead for, “I think we’ve made some good progress here so I’m going to move on now.” “Oh, we hate to see you go when you’re doing so much good,” comes the slightly wounded reply, “but we understand. Just head over to maintenance and give them your parking garage pass along with this cat — they’ll know what to do with it. And yes, mister smarty pants, they do really need the cat.”
As you leave, someone grabs you in the hallway for a hushed exchange. “Haha, leaving us already, I see,” they say in a really loud voice. Then, in a strained whisper, “take me with you — these people are crazy. They’re killing cats for God’s sake!” What you’ve come to understand during your stay with the company is that, while at first glance it seems like everyone is on board with the madness, in reality, very few people think it makes sense. It just has an inexplicable, critical mass of some kind with an event horizon from which the company simply cannot escape.
What’s the score here? What’s next?
So once you leave the company, what happens next? Assuming this exit is one of departing employee, the most likely outcome is that you move on and tell this story every now and then over beers, shuddering slightly as you do. But, it might be that you leave and take the would-be escapees with you. Maybe you start to consult for your now-former company or maybe you enter the market as a competitor of some kind. No matter what you do, someone probably starts to compete with them and probably starts to win. If the company does change, it’s unlikely to happen as a result of internal introspection and initiative and much more likely to happen in desperate response to crisis or else steered by some kind of external force like a consulting firm or a business partner. Whatever the outcome, “we just worked really hard and righted the ship on our own” is probably not the vehicle.
If that company survives its own bizarre and twisted cat mangling process, it doesn’t survive it by taking incremental baby-steps from “cat murdering” to “writing software,” placating all involved at every step of the way that “nothing really needs to change that much.” The success prerequisite, in fact, is that you need to change that much and more and in a hail of upheaval and organizational violence. (People like to use the term “disruption” in this context, but I don’t think that goes far enough at capturing the wailing, gnashing of teeth and stomping of feet that are required). In order to arrive at such a point of entrenched organizational failure, people have grown really comfortable doing really unproductive things for a really long time, which means that a lot of people need to get really uncomfortable really fast if things are going to improve.
I think the organizations that survive the “form->burn->bloat->die” star cycle are the ones that basically gather a consortium of hot burning small stars and make it look to the outside world that it’s a single, smoothly running star. This is a bit of a strained metaphor, but what I mean is that organizations need to come up with ways to survive and even start to drive lurching, staggering upheaval that characterizes innovation. They may seem calm to the outside world, but internally, they need malcontents and revolutionaries leaving the cat killing rooms and taking smart people with them. It’s just that instead of leaving, they re-form and tackle the problem differently and better right up until the next group of revolutionaries comes along. Oh, and somehow they need all of this upheaval to drive real added value and not just cause chaos. Yeah, it’s not an easy problem. If it were, corporations would have much better long term survival rates.
I don’t know the solution, but I do know that many established organizations are like drug addicts, hooked on a cocktail of continuity and mediocrity. They know it isn’t good for them and that it’s even slowly killing them, and they seek interventions and hide their shame from those that try to help them, but it’s just so comfortable and so easy, and just a few more months like this, and look, man, this is just the way it is, so leave me alone about it, okay!? If you’re working for or with a company struggling to change, understand this dynamic and game plan for drastic measures. You’re going to need to come up with a way to change the game, radically, and somehow not piss all involved parties off in the process. If you want to stay, that is. If not, there’s probably good money to be made in disrupting or competing with outfits that just want to keep burning those cats.
Love the article! Now, I’ve only worked at one company like this, but my impression was that a lot of this ossification was encouraged by government regulation. Though many individuals on the team might believe that killing cats is a bad idea, there’s a bunch of seniors and a big boss who promise to fire anyone who displays less than perfect enthusiasm about the cat killing process. If you were to catch the big boss in private after work, he might admit in a conspiratorial whisper that the cat killing is all pretty useless, but it’s required by the Huffman-Bolger… Read more »
I think that’s a pretty astute observation. Regulations and the like certainly can drive this dynamic, without question. I might also generalize and say that it results from learning to be risk averse the hard way in any capacity. It may be regulation, it may be getting sued, it may be the development of unfortunate incentive structures, but I think the common thread is probably going from “new and hungry” to “established and timid.”
@David S — I also work in a regulated industry. My personal opinion is that there needs to be a balance between regulation (structure so that there’s a minimum level of quality) and the ability to innovate. I’ve definitely seen the mindset of “someone didn’t follow the regulations, so the fix must be…more regulation”. The resulting system is a quagmire of being so scared to move because of the legal/financial/PR risks. I share your optimism that eventually the system’s complexity will force change (hopefully not the supernova kind!). @Eric — Granted this is an “it depends” question, but is there… Read more »
I think there’s value in staying to fight as long as you find value in it. I’ve spent a lot of time in my career, for instance, dragging software groups along to trying to do new things and leave bad habits behind. It can be incredibly rewarding, but it can also be incredibly exhausting (and subject after a while to diminishing returns, in my experience).
Fantastic Article! I love this blog. Most of my friends and family are not IT people, and I have always had a really difficult time trying to describe to them how I could be so unsatisfied with a job that looks great from the outside. You do a great job of explaining these concepts without getting into the technical apsects of the job or the company. From now on I’ll just send my friends and family to your blog posts and say “the company refuses to stop killing cats” or “they’ve got the Dead-Sea-Effect going on.”
Glad if it gave you a way to communicate the concepts to non-techies. That’s something that’s a frequent goal of mine with this blog, actually. I frequently wind up in positions where I’m doing this with a job or a client, and so the blog is a natural place to practice the analogies and refine the concepts in my own head.