JoAnn Hackos, PhD
CIDM Director

As many publications managers recognize, managing remote teams takes much more involvement and care than any of us would have imagined, especially when the remote teams have a history of acting independently. We encounter even more challenging issues when the remote teams are inexperienced in information development because they are located offshore in emerging economies. Recently, a colleague reminded me about an article in the March 2001 issue of the Harvard Business Review, in which Paul Levy describes the Nut Island disaster. For more than 30 years, Nut Island was the Boston area sewage treatment plan, located just far enough from Boston and city managers to become isolated. What seemed like a dream team of self-sufficient workers was responsible for the worst pollution disaster in Boston history, releasing billions of gallons of raw sewage into Boston Harbor.

The Nut Island disaster occurred because senior management paid little or no attention to the remote team at the sewage plant. They assumed that the staff knew what it was doing and would keep operations going, no matter what happened. The staff worked in almost complete isolation from the management, who were focused on more pressing and more politically relevant issues. As long as the Nut Island staff did its job and didn’t complain, no one paid them much attention. Early on, staff and managers did request funding to maintain and upgrade failing equipment. But upgrading the sewage plant had few political payoffs for management, and so was ignored. The staff heard the message and became increasingly self-sufficient, even in the face of the impending disaster.

Levy points out that the organizational pathology characteristic of Nut Island is not rare. Rather, many organizations will suffer from the Nut Island effect, as publications managers will no doubt quickly recognize. No only do we have to guard against the Nut Island effect among our remote teams of information developers, our own organizations, often ignored by senior management, are in danger of developing an “us against the world” mentality.

As Levy explains, the Nut Island effect goes through five fairly predictable stages, which sound frighteningly familiar.

In Stage 1, senior management decides that an important, although not critical task should be assigned to a manager and team. They give the manager and team almost complete autonomy to conduct business as they see fit, as long as deadlines are met and embarrassing disasters avoided. The team members usually have a strong work ethic and are often happiest working out of the limelight. They are very good at defining and managing their own activities, few of which are understood by senior management.

Stage 2 is often quite felicitous. Senior management is pleased that the team can function with little, if any supervision. When the team does ask for funding or responsibility for new functions (such as customer studies), they are often rebuffed. Why spend more money on a function that is holding its own? Over time, the team begins to resent senior managers who don’t care about what they do.

During Stage 3, the team becomes increasingly isolated, taking on a strong “us against the world” point of view. They become increasingly skilled at disguising problems in front of outsiders. Think of the stories of remote teams who fail to mention major problems in file management, technical understanding, and editorial abilities until a deadline has been missed. Of course, until problems demand attention, senior management equates silence with good process control.

Stage 4 marks the extent of the isolation. Rarely exposed to outside ideas or industry best practices, the team makes up its own rules. The rules seem like good practices because there is no way to compare them. However, the house rules often mask serious deficiencies in process and standards. I’ve visited many departments who brag about the quality of their information design, only to find them dreadfully behind and oblivious to industry standards. Their stock of ideas is limited to what they can think up themselves.

By the final stage, the distorted view of reality has become difficult, if not impossible to correct. Think of a “legacy” staff, complacent about their processes, who are producing information products that no one uses and reflect practices considered out-of-date for 20 years or more. Eventually, some event breaks the stalemate in which management ignores the team and the team ignores management. In recent years, we’ve seen wholesale layoffs and outsourcing of expensive and ineffectual information-development organizations. The typical reaction is shock. “Haven’t we been doing the job everyone asked of us?” “Haven’t we worked extra long hours to meet deadlines?” “Why have we suddenly become obsolete?”

As Levy points out, “a team can easily lose sight of the big picture when it narrowly focuses on a demanding task. The task itself becomes the big picture, crowding other considerations out of the frame” (p. 58).

Despite its apparent ubiquitous presence in our organizations, the Nut Island effect can be avoided. Certainly, we all want team members who work hard and are dedicated to the team’s success. But we must keep them from becoming isolated, unable to look at their work in a larger context. We must keep our own teams and especially our remote teams from becoming exclusively focused on deadlines. Instead, they need to participate in a strategic vision that is aligned with larger corporate goals and customer needs.

First, we need to find ways to measure performance and give rewards that match larger corporate goals. Second, we need to keep senior management involved, especially through site visits and attendance at staff celebrations and other customer-critical events. Third, we need to integrate team members. Staff at the “home office” need to circulate among the remote teams. Remote team members need to work for a time at headquarters. All team members need to be actively involved with cross-departmental teams working on customer studies, requirements, product design, support activities, and so on. Finally, we need to bring in outside experts to introduce new ideas and benchmark team actions against industry best practices. We need to involve everyone in the review and improvement process.

We also need, of course, to get out of the office ourselves to learn directly from team members and to interact with colleagues in our own field and associated fields. By building a community of professional colleagues and interacting in professional settings, we are continuously exposed to new thinking, decreasing our isolation, and providing us with challenges.

Levy observes that putting good people into situations where they do the wrong things is not just avoidable, it is tragic. It’s a waste of human potential and a threat to the corporation’s survival. We need to seek out possible instances of the Nut Island effect and work very hard to prevent it from taking hold.

Paul Levy
The Nut Island Effect: When Good Teams Go Wrong
Harvard Business Review
March 1, 2001