The Council of Elders Anti-Pattern

Convene the High Council

Today I’d like to talk about something that I’ve observed on some occasions throughout my career. It sort of builds on the concepts that I’ve touched on in previous writings “How to Keep your Best Programmers” and the Expert Beginner posts, including Bruce Webster’s “Dead Sea Effect.” The phenomenon is an anti-pattern that is unique to shops with fairly mature Dead Sea/Expert Beginner presences, and I’ll call it “Council of Elders.”

To understand what I mean by this, let’s consider what happens in an organization with a more vital software group full of engaged, competent, and improving engineers and not bogged down in the politics and mediocrity of seniority-based advancement. In such a group, natural divisions of labor emerge based on relative expertise. For example, you might have an effective team with the “database guy” and the “architecture gal” and “markup guru” and the “domain knowledge expert” or some such thing. Each resident expert handles decision making within his or her sphere of influence and trusts other team members to likewise do the right thing in their own areas of strength. There might be occasional debate about things that blur the lines or occur on the boundary between two experts, but that’s just part of a healthy group dynamic.

And truly, this is a healthy group. There is no dead weight, and all of the group members have autonomy within a subset of the work that is done, meaning that people are happy. And that happiness breeds mutual trust and productivity. I’m oversimplifying and prettying up the counterexample a bit, but it really is something of a virtuous cycle with team members happily playing to their own strengths and areas of interest.

TheCouncilBut what happens in particularly salty Dead Sea shops where authority comes neither from merit nor from expertise, but rather from tenure with the company? What happens when the roost is ruled by Expert Beginners? Well, for one thing, the lords and ladies here tend to guard their fiefdoms more jealously since expertise on the part of others is more threat than benefit. Perhaps more importantly and broadly, however, knowledge and expertise are devalued in favor of personal politics and influence with debates being won on the basis of “who are you and how loud/charming/angry/glib/etc. are you” rather than on the merit of ideas. The currency of Dead Sea departments is everything but ideas–in benevolent ones, it may be “how long have you been here” or “how nice a person are you,” and, in “high pressure culture” ones, it might simply be psychopathy or other cutthroat forms of “might makes right.” And with evaluation of ideas out the window, every council member is freed to hold forth as an expert on every topic, regardless of how much or little he knows about that topic. Nobody is going to dispute anything he says–non-members are cowed into submission and fellow members recognize the importance of putting on a unified public front since they want to be be able to do the same without being questioned.

If you put this political yeast in the oven and let it rise, some of the results are fairly predictable: idea stagnation, increasingly bone-headed solutions to problems, difficulty keeping talent, etc. But an interesting consequence isn’t necessarily intuitive–namely that you’ll wind up with a kind of cabal of long-tenured people that collectively make all decisions, however big or small. I call this the “Council of Elders,” and it’s like one of those Magic Eye paintings that’s hidden but couldn’t be more obvious once you see it.

The Council of Elders is sort of like the Supreme Court of the department, and it’s actually surprisingly democratic as opposed to the more expected ladder system which ranks people by years and months with the company (or if you’re a fan of The Simpsons, the system in the Stonecutters episode where all members of the club are assigned a numeric rank in the order of joining, which determines their authority). The reason that it’s democratic is that actually assigning rank based on years/months of tenure would unceremoniously poke a hole in any illusion of meritocracy. So the council generally makes entrance to the club a matter of tenure, but status within the club a shifting matter of alliances and status games once past the velvet rope.

The Council is fundamentally incapable of delegation or prioritization of decision making. Since entrance is simply a matter of “paying your dues” (i.e. waiting your turn) and largely earned by Expert Beginners, it’s really impossible to divide up decision making based on expertise. The members tend to be very good at (or at least used to) company politics and procedures but not much else. They mostly have the same ‘skill’ set. The lack of prioritization comes from the main currency in the group being status. If a decision, however small, is made by someone not on the Council, it threatens to undermine the very Council itself, so a policy of prevention is adopted and any attempts at circumvention are met with swift and terrible justice (in the form of whatever corporate demerits are in place).

Recognizing Your Elders

What does this council look like in the wild, and how do you know if one is pulling your strings? Here’s a set of symptoms that you’re being governed by a Council of Elders:

  • In any meeting convened to make a decision, the same group of people with minor variants is always present.
  • Members of the software group are frequently given vague instructions to “talk to so and so before you do anything because his cousin’s dog’s trainer once did something like that or something.”
  • There is a roster, emailed out or tacked up, of people who can “clear” you to do something (e.g. they give code reviews, approve time spent, etc.)
  • Sparks fly when something wasn’t “cleared” with someone, even when a few others “approved” it and it has apparently nothing to do with him. “Someone should have told me.” More than one or two people like this and you have a Council.
  • People in the group often feel caught between a rock and a hard place when involved in the political posturing of the Council (e.g. Yoda tells the intern Padiwan to implement the new hours tracking app using SQL Server, but then Mace Windu screams at him that this is a MySQL shop–the Council settles this matter later with no apologies)
  • There is a junta of team members that seem to do nothing but shuffle from meeting to meeting all day like mid-level managers.
  • There are regular meetings viewed by newbies and junior developers as rites of passage.

These are just easy ways to detect Councils in their natural habitat: “where there’s smoke, there’s fire” situations. But lest you think that I’m trying to paint every software department with senior developers that go to meetings with this brush, here is a list of specific criteria — “minimum Council Requirements,” if you will:

  • Lack of clearly defined roles on the group/team or else lack of clear definition for the assigned roles (e.g. there is no ‘architect’ or if there is, no one really knows what that means).
  • A “dues paying” culture and promotions, power and influence largely determined by length of tenure.
  • Lack of objective evaluation criteria of performance, skill and decision-making acumen (i.e. answers to all questions are considered subjective and matters of opinion).
  • Proposed changes from above are met with claims of technical infeasibility and proposed changes from juniors/newbies or other groups are met with vague refusals or simply aren’t acknowledged at all.
  • Actions of any significance are guarded with gatekeeper policies (official code reviews, document approval, sign-off on phases, etc).
  • Line manager tacitly approves of, endorses or is the product of the Council.
  • A moderate to large degree of institutional bureaucracy is in place.
  • New technologies, techniques, approaches, etc are met systematically with culturally entrenched derision and skepticism.

Not a Harmless Curiosity

At this point, you might think to yourself, “So what? It might not be ideal, but rewarding people with a little gratifying power in exchange for company loyalty is common and mostly harmless.” Or perhaps you’re thinking that I’m overly cynical and that the Council generally has good advice to dispense–wisdom won in the trenches. Of course all situations are different, but I would argue that a Council of Elders has a relatively noticeable and negative effect on morale, productivity, and general functioning of a group.

  • The Council is a legitimate bottleneck in its micromanagement of other team members, severely hampering their productivity even with the best assumption of its judiciousness
  • A group of people that spends all its time debating one another over how to rule on every matter doesn’t actually get much work done. The SCOTUS, for example, hasn’t represented a lot of clients lately, but that’s because their job is to be a ruling council–yours probably has titles like, “Senior Software Engineer.”
  • People lacking expertise but put in positions of authority tend to overcompensate by forming strong opinions and sticking to them stubbornly. A room full of people meeting this criterion is going to resemble the US House of Representatives with its gridlock more than a software team.
  • Major problems are likely to languish without solutions because the committee doesn’t do much prioritizing and is likely to be sidetracked for a few days by the contentious issue of what color to make the X for closing the window.
  • Important decisions are made based on interpersonal dynamics among the council rather than merit. Jones might have the best idea, but Jones shorted the check at lunch that day, so the other Council Members freeze him out.
  • Councils make it hard to give meaningful roles or titles to anyone and thus give rise to preposterous situations in which departments have eight ‘architects’ and five developers, or where a project manager decides what database to use while a DBA writes requirements. If everyone on the Council has authority and is an expert at everything, project roles are meaningless anyway.
  • Even under the best circumstances, democratic voting on software design trends toward mediocrity: see Design by Committee Anti-Pattern
  • People toiling away under the rule of a Council, if they don’t leave, will tend to wind up checked out and indifferent. Either that, or they’ll be assimilated into the Council culture.
  • The Council is a natural preservation agent of the Dead Sea problem. Being micromanaged by a team of people whose best qualification is being around for a while and negotiating power will separate the wheat from the chaff, but not in the good way.
  • The only thing that unites the Council is outside threats from above or below. If managers or newer members want change, the Council will lock together like a Praetorian Legion to preserve the status quo, however dysfunctional that may be.
  • Suggestions for improvement are construed with near universality as threats.

If you’re in a position to do so, I’d suggest breaking up the cartel. Figure out what people are good at and give them meaningful roles. Keep responsibilities divided, and not only will autonomy become more egalitarian, but also people tenured and new alike will develop complementary skills and areas of expertise. With people working together rather than forming shifting alliances, you’ll find prioritizing tasks, dividing up work, and getting things done becomes easier. The Council’s reptile brain will take over and it will fight you every step of the way when you try to disband it, but once you do, it will be good for everyone.