Boxes are amazing things. I don’t know who invented the first box, but he really did us a favor, that guy. They allow us to carry more things than we normally could, to organize our stuff, to hold things that otherwise couldn’t be held like air, water, and lava. Boxes come in all kinds of materials too; Wood, metal, cardboard, glass; there is even a bone box holding your brains. I bet if you look around, why your house is just filled with useful boxes. In fact, your house is a kind of box itself, isn’t it? But there is a downside to boxes, too. If a box is left alone long enough, and placed in a dark enough corner, then before you know it, a Box Troll will move in. You will start to hear noises coming from the box at odd times. Or it will randomly shake. And when you try to peer into the unnatural darkness within it, all you will see is a pair of predatory red eyes peering back at you, and perhaps a hairy knuckled hand will start to reach out.
Ok fairy tales aside, the truth of the matter is, Box Trolls exist. They may not be mythological creatures, or even monsters, but odds are your company has a few of them. They can come from any and every part of the company, but the IT Department seems to breed them like vermin. In many companies, we tend to put people into boxes, and say “This box is for networking” or “this box is for accounting.” We come up with these great sounding names for it like roles, separations, and partitions. And because these boxes are small, the Trolls tend to be alone in their box and start to think of themselves as Kings of their boxes. And when something or someone enters their box, it’s like a sudden shaft of light is piercing their darkness. Its blinding. It scares them, and hints to them that they may not in fact be kings of anything. And so, a Box Troll will do anything to get that person or thing out of its box. And once they do, they will pretend that it no longer exists for it is now outside the scope of the box.
So, what is a Box Troll?
I keep lapsing into metaphor, don’t I? When dealing with Box Trolls it’s hard to comprehend them without using a metaphor, because the mindset is so antithetical to everything we think of as team work and empowerment. In simple terms, a Box Troll is a team member that is working to protect their own comfort and interests at the cost of the greater team. Unlike the common Office Weasel, they are not necessarily scheming to climb the corporate ladder, though they do enjoy the perks of power. They rarely make alliances except with other Trolls, and usually only so long as they keep out of each other’s boxes. They may appear busy, but nothing they do ever seems to further any of the overall business goals; they may not even be aware that the business has goals in some cases.
So how do we recognize a Box Troll? Glad you asked. They have a lot of methods of protecting their box, but there are three that tend to get used more than any other. This first is to just say No. That’s right, no matter what you requested or why, they will shoot it down. Should you try to discuss, or even argue, you will find that they will create improbable scenarios to back their decisions. A veritable Rube-Goldberg Device of random facts and coincidences will suddenly coalesce into a likely, if not inevitable, occurrence that no one else could have conceived. Usually key words like “Security” and “Compliance” are used as part of the excuse because it’s hard to argue against being secure and compliant. Likewise, names will be dropped. Their goal here is to shut you down completely as quickly and as easily as possible to get you out of their box.
When a Box Troll can’t get away with just saying No, they tend to weaponize the bureaucracy. Things will be put off “until we can have a board meeting.” Or “Agnes usually handles those transactions, so maybe we should wait until she gets back from her three-year sabbatical to Tibet.” Another favorite of mine is “I was waiting for Bob to reply.” Of course, there are always the bureaucratic lies we have all used from time to time: “It must have gone into my Spam folder,” or “I didn’t realize this email was meant for me because my name wasn’t mentioned.” And when necessary, they can pull out the big guns, “Oh yes, I saw your request from last week, but it wasn’t complete. Three of your sentences were missing periods and one period looked more like a comma, so I will need you to make corrections and resubmit the request.” And when a Box Troll is weaponizing bureaucracy, they suddenly forget how to pick up a phone and ask for clarifications. Their goal now is to put so many obstacles in your path, and to delay the execution for as long as possible, so that you relent and leave their box alone. And should you complain, they will shift all the blame for it to the system. “Form 29-G wasn’t filled out in triplicate; what could I do?”
Finally, when a Box Troll is forced to work on another request, be assured, they will often attempt to interpret the request to the letter with the tenacity of a corporate lawyer or a politician. No supporting actions will be done that are not in the request. No improvements will be suggested. There will be no follow up. And they will not care if the request in fact solves any real-world problems. If it fails, even better. They just want more than ever to get you out of their box because now you are a reminder that they are not in fact Kings. And the sooner your request is over, the sooner they can return to ruling over their own darkness. (Damn it, I am getting metaphorical again.)
IT Exists to help Business
The fact of the matter is, technology has always existed to help business. We tend to think of technology solely in terms of personal computing devices and wide area networks and multi-protocol data lines, but technology has been helping business since the beginning of time. Pencil and Paper are forms of technology, and paperwork allowed us to have more complex business interactions that spanned time and people. A plow is a great piece of technology for a farmer, allowing him or her to seed a field that would otherwise be too difficult to grow anything in. But every time technology becomes more complex, we need specialized individuals to handle that technology on behalf of the business. Farmers needed livestock, and therefore animal husbandry, to keep ox or cattle to pull the plow. In the middle ages, Kings and Queens could be illiterate but they had scholars to write down their proclamations and interpret laws and treaties and keep records of transactions. When Algebra was invented in the year 820 we got accounting but we suddenly needed accountants of all people to balance the spreadsheets. Now we have computers, but the situation is no different than the introduction of Algebra, or a pencil.
And as IT people, we can do a lot for a business. We automate complex and repetitive tasks, freeing up hours of productivity so that time can be concentrated on sales or operations. We create structures for organizing data such as Data Warehouses, Active Directories, or even simple filing systems. And by doing so, we enable the business to make better decisions based on that data. We implement systems that enforce protocols so that no critical steps in a process are missed. And we protect the business and its systems from catastrophes.
So, if we are so integral to business, why am I such a Negative Nelly when it comes to IT people? Where’s the love, you ask? The honest truth is, whenever I deal with a Box Troll in an IT Department, I see my own reflection there, and it embarrasses me. I don’t know what it is about us, but it seems like we all have a little Box Troll deep down inside. Does the job attract us, or does it create us? I don’t know. But I have spent my career trying to fight the Box Troll impulses within me, and helping my own employees to do the same.
Unboxing the Troll
So here is my advice if you want to stop being a Box Troll. First and foremost, understand that a business has needs and if those needs are not met the business goes under. Nothing will deprive you of your box quicker than getting laid off or fired. Too often we forget that there are reasons for these requests we are getting, and that there are consequences to our actions and inactions. Maybe in some special situation a concession would put you, or the company, in moral, ethical, legal, physical or financial risk and you are justified in putting a stop to it. But that is really very rare, and in all other situations the needs of the business must come first. So never just say no to a request. Instead, take some time to understand the request; get the details you need to make an informed decision. There is a reason why the request is being made and understanding that reason may change your mind or your outlook on the request. And even if it doesn’t, it will help you explain to the requestor why you couldn’t comply with their request. And in that situation, don’t simply toss your reasons out of the box; take the time to make sure the requestor truly understands your reasons. Also, never forget that you are the expert and you need to act like it. If you must say no to a request, provide an alternative. Maybe there was a better way to meet that need or accomplish that end that the requestor didn’t know about.
It’s going to be difficult. Habits are hard to break, and none of us like it when our comfort zones are disrupted. I still struggle with it. But if you succeed in doing this, if you make yourself an asset instead of an obstacle, you will stop being a Box Troll and become an IT Hero. I promise.
Oh, by the way, we got a post card from Agnes. Says she is having a great time in Tibet and wishes you were there.