Tuesday, October 09, 2007

When good teams go wrong

Several years ago, I published an article in the Harvard Business Review entitled, The Nut Island Effect, When Good Teams Go Wrong. Here is a link to a preview of the article.

Here's the opening:

They were every manager’s dream team. They performed difficult, dirty, dangerous work without complaint, they put in thousands of hours of unpaid overtime, and they even dipped into their own pockets to buy spare parts. They needed virtually no supervision, handled their own staffing decisions, cross-trained each other, and ingeniously improvised their way around operational difficulties and budgetary constraints. They had tremendous esprit de corps and a deep commitment to the organization’s mission.

There was just one problem: their hard work helped lead to that mission’s catastrophic failure

The team that traced this arc of futility were the 80 or so men and women who operated the Nut Island sewage treatment plant in Quincy, Massachusetts, from the late 1960s until it was decommissioned in 1997. During that period, these exemplary workers were determined to protect Boston Harbor from pollution. Yet in one six-month period in 1982, in the ordinary course of business, they released 3.7 billion gallons of raw sewage into the harbor. Other routine procedures they performed to keep the harbor clean, such as dumping massive amounts of chlorine into otherwise untreated sewage, actually worsened the harbor’s already dreadful water quality.

How could such a good team go so wrong? And why were the people of the Nut Island plant—not to mention their supervisors in Boston—unable to recognize that they were sabotaging themselves and their mission? These questions go to the heart of what I call the Nut Island effect, a destructive organizational dynamic I came to understand after serving four and a half years as the executive director of the public authority responsible for the metropolitan Boston sewer system.

As I note in the article, "Since leaving that job, I have shared the Nut Island story with managers from a wide range of organizations. Quite a few of them—hospital administrators, research librarians, senior corporate officers—react with a shock of recognition. They, too, have seen the Nut Island effect in action where they work."

Not that I am selling HBR, but here's where you can order the article. I would be really surprised if you do not have examples in your own organization.


Anonymous said...

Soooo...the leadership of the organization was AWOL? I don't get it. I love the counter-intuitive hook and the illogical conclusion but without the explanation of the Nut Island effect, I'm lost. Can you fill us in on what went wrong without our having to go make HBR a little wealthier?

Anonymous said...

I think its awesome that HBR will sell you a pdf electronic copy of the article for $6.50, or sell you a license to photocopy it from someone else's copy of the magazine for $4.50. What chutzpah!

Anonymous said...

Sorry, pesha, the whole story tells the story.

Sorry, anon 9:16, but it is a business school publication!

Anonymous said...

I've read your Nut Island Effect article before; it's very intuitive, and - once you identify the dynamic - it's easy to spot various manifestations of it across a range of teams and organizations. A very interesting observation, and a beautiful articulation of it. Your smokejumpers story from some weeks back made me think that there's some element of the nut island effect going on there, too.

Unknown said...

I'm getting my MBA right now - we read The Nut Island Effect two quarters ago and our continual reference to it spans various other classes, from marketing to operations to HR to finance. :-) I can't tell you how many organizations I have worked for that experienced that type of dynamic. Now, after having read the article, I can finally look back and say "Ohh, now I understand why that happened!"

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

What a relief! For a moment, I thought you were going to tell us they had joined a union!

Anonymous said...

I wonder if this snafu regarding the Air Force and moving nuclear tipped missiles across the US by (huge) mistake is a Nut Island case?
John M