Work Somewhere Dysfunctional

Marianne Bellotti
12 min readJan 17, 2022

The rewards are great if you can survive…

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The other day I was talking to an engineer about developing and refining good process. My most effective and valuable tricks for getting stuff done were developed in dysfunctional places (i.e. the government.) If your technique needs ideal conditions in order to work, then it doesn’t work at all. At some point you need to stress test it, and you might as well start off that way before you’ve gone all over town talking yourself up.

This is a big part of why I decided to advance my work on software safety by working for a defense company. No approach to AI safety is worth discussing until it’s operational in a place where unsafe outcomes are likely. Before it has yielded results in that kind of environment it’s just noise, white wash and wishful thinking.

People who want to study earthquakes need to go where there are fault lines. People who want to solve hard problems need to go where those problems live.

Unfortunately, places with hard problems that haven’t been solved are also — inevitably — kind of dysfunctional. If you don’t have a ‘good enough’ solution and you don’t have innovation in progress then the only way you deal with a hard problem is with maladapted strategies. Solutions that rob Peter to pay Paul in some way. Perhaps the organization is choosing to just let people run around desperately attempting to plug holes until they burn out and are replaced. Perhaps they surrendered to the problem itself and focus their time and energy on blame shifting exercises. Perhaps people are using the seriousness of the problem as a fundraising exercise for themselves or their pet projects…

In any case, truly landing innovation … that is not just coming up with it, but evangelizing and operationalizing it. Truly landing innovation means learning to navigate a dysfunctional organization. If it’s not where your innovation is born, it is certainly where it will have to work in order for any real impact to happen.

While it is stressful and frustrating to work in a place where people cannot get out of their own way, learning how to thrive there builds career skills that you don’t have to return once you’ve decided to move on. The challenge for most is finding the right level and type of organizational dysfunction…

Marianne Bellotti

Author of Kill It with Fire Manage Aging Computer Systems (and Future Proof Modern Ones)