Fake work – a real opportunity to enhance team effectiveness

‘Fake Work’, by Brent Peterson and Gaylan Nielson is an excellent dissertation on a common cause of frustration and wasted time and effort at work.  According to the authors’ research, 53% of workers believe that they do work that does not count, and 54% feel that their creativity, talent and intelligence is under-used.  Unfortunately fake work is so well-established in many organisations, that not only have cartoon strips and television programmes (e.g. Dilbert and The Office) been based on them, but people actually delight in following them!

Fake work is at the heart of what I aim to help people with to enhance team effectiveness, hence this blog of my impressions of the book’s content.

What is fake work?

The authors define fake work as: “effort under the illusion of value”.  Whereas real work is “work that is critical and aligned to the key goals and strategies of an organisation.”  “It is work that is essential for the organisation’s short-term and long-term survival.”

Most of us will be familiar with the more obvious sources, or potential sources of fake work:

  • Meetings that have no clear purpose or agenda, fuzzy start and end times, and actions that are either ill-defined or not properly followed-through;
  • E-mail threads that include long cc: lists of people who have no direct connection or interest with the topic under discussion.  And e-mails themselves with unclear purposes / content or that could have been better addressed through a direct conversation;
  • Searches of the internet, and indeed use of social media with no clearly defined aim or structure to the search / use of the tools;
  • Phone conversations again that ramble on beyond their original intent.

There are other more insidious forms of fake work though:

  • Teams or individuals that are asked to spend time pulling together recommendations which are not reviewed because management have already decided on their direction;
  • Reports (such as monthly reports), that are either not read, contain more information than is needed, or duplicate previous reports;
  • People coming into work early, or leaving late because that is the expected norm, or because they feel they need to look busy.

Why is there so much fake work?  What are the causes?

The authors describe 4 main causes of fake work:

  1. Strategy: the organisation’s strategy is unclear, or work is not aligned to it. “Probably the greatest generator of fake work is employees and their leaders who don’t regularly review the work they are doing and its relationship to company strategy.”
  2. Job descriptions: the individual’s remit is unclear; they do not have clear priorities; deliverables and timelines are not well defined.
  3. The team: there is a lack of cohesiveness within the team; poor communications; attitudes and behaviours promote or condone fake work. “Everyone has something to contribute  to a company, but no single person can successfully contribute anything if his or her efforts aren’t aligned to the team’s and the company’s strategic goals.”
  4. Management: inadequate at addressing all of the above; not providing the necessary coaching and support to promote ‘real’ work.

How to address fake work?

The authors take their readers through a series of paths, which are essentially a variation of cycles such as Deming’s Plan, Do, Check, Act.

  • Plan: covers the importance of defining the company’s strategy, required behaviours, measures of success and communications that will enable everyone to understand the strategy and align what they do in relation to it.
  • Do: requires managers to role model the right behaviours for real work, communicate, coach and support their teams.  It also requires team members to understand the different attitudes and strengths within the team, and how they can complement each other, as well as to challenge behaviours that do not support real work.
  • Check: involves reviewing work against the measures of success, obtaining feedback, checking assumptions, and also listening to the stories that are circulating within the organisation.  This latter is an interesting take on the work of Snowden and Denning who use stories for sharing knowledge within organisations.
  • Act: is about taking action as a result of the ‘check’ step to review and adjust plans and so correct behaviours.


Although the authors do not mention it, process improvement techniques such as Lean and Six Sigma, are ideally placed to help people check for, understand and address fake work.

The following reflection, however, provides an excellent way to address fake work at the ‘helicopter’ view: “Think through all the activities you do in a given day.  How many of them are real?  How many of them are fake?”  I’ve certainly found this a very useful perspective to take in anything I do!


1. “Fake Work”  by Brent D. Peterson, Gaylan W. Neilson

2. Deming’s PDCA cycle – see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PDCA

3. Steve Denning on storytelling – see http://www.stevedenning.com/Business-Narrative/default.aspx

4. Elisabeth Goodman is Owner and Principal Consultant at RiverRhee Consulting, a consultancy that uses process improvement and knowledge management to enhance team effectiveness.

Follow the links to find out more about RiverRhee Consulting, and about Elisabeth Goodman.

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