Death Swamp

Recently a friend sent me this. I recognized it instantly, although I never knew that it had a name.

There is a management technique called “death swamp” (or “death bog” or “fly paper”). It works this way. Occasionally some young fire-eater comes up with an idea to Do Something. The bureaucracy can’t simply reject his idea because then they’d have to give an explanation for why his idea was rejected. So they pat him on the back, agree that his idea is a good one, and encourage him to pursue it. In fact they think so highly of his idea that they helpfully volunteer information about How We Get Things Done Around Here. They provide a sheaf of forms and advice on how to get the ball rolling.

The young and inexperienced fire-eater happily starts down the road in the direction that has been pointed out to him. In short order he finds himself in a swamp of procedures and paperwork so thick that he is completely bogged down and making no progress. Eventually he gives up.

The next time he comes up with an idea, he is given the same forms again. This time, seeing the forms, he realizes his mistake. He politely accepts the forms and walks away. Around the corner, he throws the forms in the trash and gives up on his idea. Because by then he knows that the only way to escape the swamp is not to enter it in the first place.

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4 thoughts on “Death Swamp

  1. Sometimes, those young fire-eaters *do* have great ideas though, and this is the perfect way to drive them away from your company and possibly out-compete yours. Frankly, if I did have a great idea for my company and I received this treatment time after time, I’d move on and take my great ideas where they would be appreciated.

  2. At a retirement party a collegue gave a spech that inlcuded a part about “unquestioningly doing things the way they had always been done because sometimes the old way is better” . He was serious…I still think about that contradiction – if you don’t question, and just accept, how do you know for sure the old way is better.

    Some people would still have us living in caves and hunting with pointy sticks…

  3. In some bureaucracies a different outcome happens – institutional anarchy hidden by so-called smoke–stacks. I have a theory that if you work at a place where developers in other groups never talk about what they’re doing, it’s because it wasn’t approved.

  4. You are right about never entering swamps in the first place. At some point you have to do what you believe is right; commit to it; and, if necessary, apologize later. Our municipal IT environment has been introduced to locally written software in both Python and Clojure by a one-person development group. Python was used to implement a Water AMR configuration/reads collection system and Clojure was and is being used for various small applications involving data manipulation, including post office address verification.

    In our environment If something goes seriously wrong, there are no apologies; there is just making sure everything is fixed, or job for life or not, your career is over. Most organizations fear grand plans, but like a success story. So, sometimes you have to work a longer day, embrace so-called midnight projects, and own up to your mistakes.

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