The team from Nut Island had the potential to accomplish great things. They were a very cohesive team. Cohesiveness relates to the degree to which memebers are attracted to and motived to remain part of that team. A cohesive group member values his or her membership and strives to maintain a positive relationship within the group. Every person working at Nut Island wanted to be there and would not let anything get in the way of their team. When looking at only the cohesiveness of a team, Nut Island would be a good example. They worked together and enjoyed what they did at the sewage plant.
Employees worked overtime without being paid for it and without complaining. They used everyone’s skills to take care of the plant and the plant equipment. 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 upgrading 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 impending disaster. Levy explains the Nut Island effect going through five fairly predictable stages. 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, they are often rebuffed.
Over time, the team begins to resent the senior management who do not 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. 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, house rules often mask serious deficiencies in process and standards. By the final stage, the distorted view of reality has become difficult, if not impossible to correct. They are complacent about their processes. Eventually, some event breaks the stalemate in which management ignores the team and the team ignores management. 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” (pg. 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 within organizations from becoming exclusively focused on deadlines or narrowly focused tasks. Instead, they need to participate in a strategic vision that is aligned with the company’s larger goals.
Companies experiencing the Nut Island effect need to find ways to measure performance and give rewards that match larger organizational goals. They need to keep senior management involved, especially through site visits and attendance at staff celebrations. Team members need to integrate. Staff at the “home office” need to circulate among the remote teams. Remote team members need to work for a time at headquarters. Sometimes outside experts need to be brought in to introduce new ideas and benchmark team actions against industry best practices. Everyone needs to be included in the review nd improvement process. Levy observes that putting good people into situations where they do the wrong things is not just avoidable, it is tragic. It is a waste of human potential and a threat to the organization’s survival. Organizations need to seek out possible instances of the Nut Island effect and work very hard to prevent it from taking hold. It would seem that bringing together a group of hard working, well-intentioned and even innovative individuals is not sufficient to produce good results. Moreover, it is also clear that meeting minimal government standards is no guarantee of effectiveness.
Indeed, such standards may be easily circumvented or become most important and time consuming task of managers in an organization, such that they run the risk of forgetting the true mandate and mission that an organization might have. There is a sense in which the Nut Island staff and the senior corporation officers, who were responsible for them, should have been obliged to swim and drink of the waters of Boston Harbor on a regular basis. Or at the very least, the regular monitoring of water quality around Nut Island and the health of people along the shoreline might have been good proxy indicators of how well they are doing their job.
Of course, the same applies to human service organizations which are more and more subjected to a great deal of government scrutiny and where managers and other staff spend increasing amounts of time meeting government standards, which are not necessarily good proxy indicators of quality, excellence or effectiveness. The fact that managers of an organization are likeable or hard working is meaningless until there is outcome data indicating that they are truly making a positive difference in the lives of individuals who require and receive their services.
Thus, one cannot depend on an individual’s or a team’s self-assessment of their accomplishments. This is certainly one of the findings often experienced by external evaluators. When evaluation teams give their reports, they should not be surprised when they are met with howls of disapproval or stony silence. By and large, individual managers, staff and work teams, including those who are hard working and well-intentioned, tend to have self-serving views of their accomplishments and of the processes they apply and are experts in. Thus, when they do receive feedback, they tend to dismiss it or react to it with hostility.
On Nut Island, hard work and isolation combined to create a situation where individuals and teams live within a fiction where “maintaining the alternative reality that prevailed on Nut Island required more than wishful thinking…It also involved strenuous denials when outsiders pointed out inconvenient facts” (pg. 59). Thus, the necessity of ensuring external scrutiny and evaluation on a periodic basis and the importance of monitoring output and outcome data combined with a strong sense of objective criticism are prerequisites to ensuring effective management.
Hard work and good intentions are simply not enough. This is particularly relevant in light of the use of concepts such as “best practice”. Too often, concepts such as best practice are nothing more than a consensual way of identifying and validating current endeavors and current methodologies in the absence of effectiveness data and outside evaluation. What makes them “best” is self-satisfaction and a fair amount of strain and sweat. Quality, excellence and effectiveness however, might be altogether different and require the ongoing use of outcome/effectiveness indicators and periodic outside evaluation.
It might, for some, seem like a stretch to suggest that industrial management, including this case study of a sewage treatment plant, has relevance to human service management and program evaluation. However, results, outcomes, evaluation and excellence are themes that one encounters time and again in a variety of management circles and human enterprise. Moreover, personal and collective effort and good intentions – not to mention a smidgen of self-interest – seem to everywhere cloud the objective assessment of quality and outcome.