I was invited to Pittsburgh today to give a talk about the leadership lessons in Goal Play! to the some of the senior managers at the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority.  PWSA provides water and wastewater services to approximately 250,000 consumers throughout the City of Pittsburgh and in surrounding areas.  This was a chance for me to take a break from health care topics and wax nostalgic about some of my own experiences as Executive Director of the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (1987-1992).  Shortly after leaving the MWRA, I wrote an article in the Harvard Business Review entitled, “The Nut Island Effect, When Good Teams Go Wrong.”  That article is also incorporated into one of the chapters of Goal Play!  Here’s the opening part of the article:

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.

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.

The Nut Island Effect occurs in many complex organizations, when a closely knit team of people running one part of the organization and the senior leadership get isolated from one another.  We talked about this today in Pittsburgh, along with other challenges involved in running large public service organizations, where well intentioned people somehow end up failing to work in an effective manner, notwithstanding their good intentions.  This prompted a lot of good discussion about how to avoid this kind of situation or how to remediate it once it occurs.