An Ontology of Systemic Failures: Dragons, Bullshit Mountain, and the Cloud of Doom

Core Claim

I as­sert that a lot of value can be achieved by cat­e­go­riz­ing sys­temic failures into four broad cat­e­gories.

For the sake of pithi­ness, I will name them “bugs”, “drag­ons”, “bul­lshit moun­tain”, and “the cloud of doom”.

A Bug is the sim­plest kind of failure: you have a sin­gle cause, and a sin­gle symp­tom. Fix­ing a bug is pretty easy, com­pared to other modes—you just fix the cause, and the symp­tom goes away. Bugs aren’t even re­ally sys­temic failures, since they don’t in­volve any cross-talk be­tween mul­ti­ple causes or effects, but they are in­cluded here for com­plete­ness.

A Dragon is like a Bug, ex­cept that in­stead of a sin­gle symp­tom, there are mul­ti­ple seem­ingly in­de­pen­dent symp­toms. Be­cause the symp­toms seem large and di­verse, a Dragon will of­ten seem far more daunt­ing than it ac­tu­ally is—al­though most Dragons are still pretty large and sig­nifi­cant causes. Deal­ing with a Dragon sim­ply in­volves some par­tic­u­larly Heroic-type iden­ti­fy­ing that there’s a Dragon, hunt­ing it down, and slay­ing it.

Bul­lshit Moun­tain is ba­si­cally the op­po­site of the Dragon. There is one huge, un­bear­able, painful symp­tom, that ev­ery­one knows about and ev­ery­one wishes would just GO AWAY. But no one can get any trac­tion on it. This is be­cause that symp­tom is ac­tu­ally be­ing con­tributed to by a thou­sand lit­tle causes, all of which only con­tribute a lit­tle—so mak­ing progress on any one of them feels like it doesn’t help much, if at all. The only way to solve Bul­shit Moun­tain is for ev­ery­one in the org to roll up their sleeves, get a shovel, pick some lit­tle cor­ner of Bul­lshit Moun­tain to work on, and start shov­el­ing—and not stop un­til the prob­lem gets no­tice­ably bet­ter, even if their work doesn’t seem to be do­ing much to con­tribute to the im­prove­ment.

Fi­nally, we have the Cloud of Doom. The Cloud of Doom is where you have a thou­sand tiny causes, each of which mean­ingfully con­tribute to each of a thou­sand lit­tle symp­toms, which to­gether make the whole sys­tem feel un­work­able. The only way to fix the Cloud of Doom is to pour an un­godly amount of Slack into the sys­tem, and hope the cloud shakes loose and blows away—oth­er­wise, ev­ery­one needs to just throw up their hands and aban­don the whole mess.

A good ques­tion to ask your­self, when try­ing to tackle a seem­ingly in­sur­mountable mess of prob­lems, is: is this a Dragon, Bul­lshit Moun­tain, or a Cloud of Doom?

Slay­ing Dragons

If the prob­lem is a Dragon, are you the one qual­ified to slay it? If you are, what fur­ther in­for­ma­tion or re­sources do you need? Do you need a team? Are you the right per­son to lead that team?

Be­cause Dragons are sin­gle-cause prob­lems, they re­spond well to a sin­gle per­son and a sin­gle plan. Most or­ga­ni­za­tions hope (and there­fore pre­tend) that most of their prob­lems are Dragons, and most or­ga­ni­za­tional prob­lem-solv­ing is ded­i­cated to find­ing Dragons (or mak­ing prob­lems look like Dragons) and then pay­ing a few core Heroes big bucks to slay them.

Ba­si­cally, slay­ing Dragons is a Solved Prob­lem in the or­ga­ni­za­tional world; most ap­par­ent lack of suc­cess in­volves mis-iden­ti­fy­ing Bul­lshit Moun­tains and Clouds of Doom as Dragons, in the naive hope that they’ll turn out to be Dragons any­ways and there­fore can be solved by a pro­cess that the sys­tem knows how to im­ple­ment.

Shov­el­ing Bul­lshit Mountain

If your prob­lem is Bul­lshit Moun­tain, do you have enough buy-in to get enough peo­ple to start shov­el­ing? Are you the right cheer­leader to keep peo­ple mo­ti­vated? Does the team still care enough to even want to solve the prob­lem? Th­ese are way harder prob­lems to tackle than the Dragon prob­lems listed above, so ex­pect a lot of peo­ple to hand­wave and con­vince you that the prob­lem is a Dragon (if they want to sig­nal buy-in for solv­ing it) or a Cloud of Doom (if they don’t).

Deal­ing with Bul­lshit Moun­tain as if it was a se­ries of Dragons is what causes “death marches” in the tech in­dus­try. It’s what makes trans­for­ma­tive “busi­ness cul­ture” ex­per­i­ments seem to work tem­porar­ily (by clear­ing out the moun­tain and re­plac­ing it with a new sys­tem, which then be­gins ac­cu­mu­lat­ing its own Bul­lshit). It’s the biggest con­trib­u­tor to low em­ployee morale that a mid- to large-size “healthy” or­ga­ni­za­tion can have. (In fact, the tran­si­tion from Bul­lshit Moun­tain into a Cloud of Doom is prob­a­bly the tip­ping point for an or­ga­ni­za­tion be­com­ing un­sal­vage­able.)

Sur­viv­ing The Cloud of Doom

Fi­nally, we have the Cloud of Doom. Every or­ga­ni­za­tion has one. Some are big, some are small, some are more toxic than oth­ers. But an or­ga­ni­za­tion with 0% of its prob­lems in a Cloud of Doom is an or­ga­ni­za­tion that has not yet had to do any­thing ac­tu­ally real.

So, you live with it. And the or­ga­ni­za­tion be­gins to de­velop other prob­lems—mostly bugs, but some Dragons and a few Bul­lshit Moun­tains here and there. And as the Dragons get big­ger and lay waste to more coun­tryside, and as the Bul­lshit Moun­tains tower higher and higher over­head, they start to in­ter­weave and cor­re­spond, feed­ing the Cloud of Doom.

Even­tu­ally, the Cloud of Doom be­gins to ac­tu­ally choke the life out of your or­ga­ni­za­tion. That’s when you have a sin­gle choice: in­ject lots and lots of Slack, or leave.

In­ject­ing lots and lots of Slack ba­si­cally means “do­ing less with more”, which al­most no one be­lieves is the cor­rect choice. But if you aren’t burn­ing ev­ery­thing down and start­ing over some­where else, it’s the only choice. If you can’t live with your Cloud of Doom, and you won’t flee it, you’re go­ing to have to stop feed­ing it and let it blow away.

Har­ness­ing the Cloud of Doom

One thing you CAN do, if you’re par­tic­u­larly vi­cious, is con­vince peo­ple that your Cloud of Doom is ac­tu­ally just Bul­lshit Moun­tain, and use that to ex­tract work from your sub­or­di­nates. You need to be ex­cep­tion­ally clever (in a Raoian so­cio­pathic sense) in or­der to pull this off, be­cause you ba­si­cally need to man­age both sides of the in­for­ma­tion and effort flow: you have to keep ev­ery­one be­liev­ing that there’s a Bul­lshit Moun­tain that they’re bit­ing into, AND you have to re-di­rect and man­age their ac­tual efforts so that they benefit your covert goals. Note that this is doable whether the ac­tual prob­lem is in fact a Cloud of Doom or merely Bul­lshit Moun­tain, and that ap­ply­ing this very pro­cess to Bul­lshit Moun­tain is one of the more com­mon things that turns Bul­lshit Moun­tain into a Cloud of Doom in the first place.

If I catch you do­ing this within any or­ga­ni­za­tion that I am al­igned with, I con­sider it within my rights to de­stroy you.

Dragon­slay­ers are Gryffin­dor, Shov­el­ers are Hufflepuff

Notic­ing what kind of prob­lem you have the right tem­per­ment to solve is key to avoid­ing burn-out. Dragon­slay­ing is glamorous, high-praise work; shov­el­ing Bul­lshit Moun­tain is thankless and gru­el­ing, and the per­son who fi­nally gets the praise is usu­ally the guy that did the least ac­tual work. From my per­spec­tive, Pro­ject Hufflepuff was in many ways a di­rect at­tempt to train up peo­ple who could han­dle the Ra­tion­al­ist-and-EA-com­mu­nity’s Bul­lshit Moun­tain be­fore it turned into a Cloud of Doom. (Whether it’s too late now or not is a mat­ter for the Slyther­ins to con­vince you; I will say no more on this to­day.)

One big prob­lem with shov­el­ers is that they still ex­pect praise and re­ward for shov­el­ing Bul­lshit Moun­tain; no one seems to be tel­ling them that it ain’t gonna hap­pen. (The smart ones figure this out on their own, and ei­ther go away or grit their teeth and get to work any­ways.) As a sys­tem for mo­ti­vat­ing peo­ple to shovel, any­thing like Pro­ject Hufflepuff is doomed to fail from the be­gin­ning. What you need is a way to iden­tify the peo­ple who are already do­ing the work, and make sure they stay funded and sup­ported and nur­tured. (Whether this prob­lem it­self is a Bul­lshit Moun­tain or a Cloud of Doom is, again, left as an ex­er­cise for the reader. A Dragon it ain’t, or Pro­ject Hufflepuff would have worked.)


So, any­way, yeah. Here we are. Do what you will with it. Or don’t; I’m not your dad.

[Epistemic sta­tus]