The Nut Island Effect: When Good Teams Go Wrong

They were hardworking, uncomplaining, and dedicated beyond the call of duty. Yet the extraordinary team that ran a vital wastewater treatment plant actually brought about disaster. How could such well-intentioned people produce such perverse results? They fell prey to an organizational pathology that can strike any business.

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.

The team that traced this arc of futility were the 80 or so men and women who operated the Nut Island sewage treatment plant in Quincy, Massachusetts, from the late 1960s until it was decommissioned in 1997. During that period, these exemplary workers were determined to protect Boston Harbor from pollution. Yet in one six-month period in 1982, in the ordinary course of business, they released 3.7 billion gallons of raw sewage into the harbor. Other routine procedures they performed to keep the harbor clean, such as dumping massive amounts of chlorine into otherwise untreated sewage, actually worsened the harbor’s already dreadful water quality.

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.

Since leaving that job, I have shared the Nut Island story with managers from a wide range of organizations. Quite a few of them—hospital administrators, research librarians, senior corporate officers—react with a shock of recognition. They, too, have seen the Nut Island effect in action where they work.

Comparing notes with these managers, I have found that each instance of the Nut Island effect features a similar set of antagonists—a dedicated, cohesive team and distracted senior managers—whose conflict follows a predictable behavioral pattern through five stages. (The path of the Nut Island effect is illustrated in the exhibit “Five Steps to Failure.”) The sequence of the stages may vary somewhat from case to case, but in its broad outlines, the syndrome is unchanging. In a dynamic that is not so much a vicious circle as a vicious spiral, the relationship between the two sides gradually crumbles under the weight of mutual mistrust and incomprehension until it can hardly be called a relationship at all.

Sidebar Icon Five Steps to Failure

The consequences of this organizational pathology are not always as vivid and unmistakable as they were in the case of the Nut Island team. More frequently, I suspect, its effects are like a slow leak—subtle, gradual, and difficult to trace. Nevertheless, the Nut Island story should serve as a warning to managers who spend the bulk of their time on an organization’s most visible and obvious shortcomings: sometimes the most debilitating problems are the ones we can’t see.

The Nut Island Effect Defined

The Nut Island effect begins with a homogeneous, deeply committed team working in isolation that can be physical, psychological, or both. Pitted against this team are its senior supervisors, who are usually separated from the team by several layers of management. In the first stage of the Nut Island effect, senior management, preoccupied with high-visibility problems, assigns the team a vital but behind-the-scenes task. This is a crucial feature: the team carries out its task far from the eye of the public or customers. Allowed a great deal of autonomy, team members become adept at organizing and managing themselves, and the unit develops a proud and distinct identity. In the second stage, senior management begins to take the team’s self-sufficiency for granted and ignores team members when they ask for help or try to warn of impending trouble. Management’s apparent indifference breeds resentment in the team members, reinforces its isolation, and heightens its sense of itself as a band of heroic outcasts. In the third stage, an us-against-the-world mentality takes hold among team members. They make it a priority to stay out of management’s line of sight, which leads them to deny or minimize problems and avoid asking for help.

Copyright © 2001 Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.

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Written By

Paul F. Levy is the executive dean for administration at Harvard Medical School in Boston. From 1987 until 1992, he was the executive director of the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority. 


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