IT Project “Thermocline”


A thermocline is a distinct temperature barrier between a surface layer of warmer water and the colder, deeper water underneath. It can exist in both lakes and oceans. A thermocline can prevent dissolved oxygen from getting to the lower layer and vital nutrients from getting to the upper layer.

In many large or even medium-sized IT projects, there exists a thermocline of truth, a line drawn across the organizational chart that represents a barrier to accurate information regarding the project’s progress. Those below this level tend to know how well the project is actually going; those above it tend to have a more optimistic (if unrealistic) view.

This is all true, but the article assumes that everyone is acting rationally, in service to the stated goal(s) of the project, and that problems with the timeline are just honest mistakes. Unfortunately, in my 25 years, I’ve witnessed a nauseating amount of political infighting that sought to undermine projects in attempts to build and/or preserve personal power. This behavior employs the two things readily at-hand for ruining estimating: bad-faith technical decisions, and good, old-fashioned feet dragging. So the problem isn’t just people being wrong, there’s also a large component due to people actively sabotaging a project for their own purposes. 

I’ve spent most of my career in Fortune 250’s, but I’ve seen this happen in a couple of very small companies too. As someone with a personality that is honest to a fault, this has caused me a significant amount of distress in my career. More than once, I’ve been the lone voice in the wilderness crying about the forthcoming train wrecks, only to be ignored, and then ultimately blamed for the crash, because I was the only one that people could point to for having said anything about it at all.

The Gervais Principle II: Posturetalk, Powertalk, Babytalk and Gametalk

Finally, Sociopaths and Losers speak rarely to each other at all. One of the functions of the Clueless, recall, is to provide a buffer in what would otherwise be a painfully raw master-slave dynamic in a pure Sociopath-Loser organization. But when they do talk, they actually speak an unadorned language you could call Straight Talk if it were worth naming. It is the ordinary (if rare) utilitarian language of the sane, with no ulterior motives flying around. The mean-what-you-say-and-say-what-you-mean stuff between two people in a fixed, asymmetric power relationship, who don’t want or need to play real or fake power games. This is the unmarked black triangle edge in the diagram.

Source: The Gervais Principle II: Posturetalk, Powertalk, Babytalk and Gametalk

I am re-reading the whole series, because it came up as a response to something I said on HN. Basically, I had reinvented this 3-layer dynamic from first principles, based on my observations of the past few years of my career. Now that someone pointed me back to it, I remember reading it originally, but this was written twelve years ago now.

Anyway, this passage really resonates with me. Every time I’ve gotten face time with a serious power broker in a company, this has been true. No games. No BS. Just straight down to business. I have something to say that will help the organization, and they’re ready to hear it and incorporate it. It never accomplishes the full intention, but I understand that they have a lot more pressures that I can see from my vantage point.

… for Sociopaths, conditions of conflict of interest and moral hazard are not exceptional. They are normal, everyday situations.  To function effectively they must constantly maintain and improve their position in the ecosystem of other Sociopaths, protecting themselves, competing, forming alliances, trading favors and building trust. … They never lower their masks. In fact they are their masks. There is nothing beneath.

Though distant from our worlds, criminal worlds have the one advantage that they do not need to maintain the fiction that the organization is not pathological, so they are revealing to study.

For me, as a non-sociopath, this is a source of continual failing: to recognize that the the people pulling the levers of power in the organization are, in fact, sociopathic, and out for their interests, without regard for anyone else’s feelings or fortunes, not mine, or even necessarily the organization’s. Forgetting this base and simple fact has bitten me in the rear end more times than I can count.