Organizational Shadows

About the Authors:

Rob De La Espriella, BD3

Rob De La Espriella, is a former nuclear submarine officer, a regulator with the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and a senior manager at commercial nuclear power plants. Since 2007, he has been a Senior Policy Advisor for the Department of Energy and their contractors. In 2023, Rob was accepted into the Forbes Business Council, contributing articles and commentary to help businesses reach their full potential.  Rob is also a leading expert in solving complex human-centric problems in modern, socio-technical work environments, and has re-defined how organizations solve proble

William J. Toth, PhD, BlueDragon Chief of Research & Development

Dr. (Bill) Toth is the former Manager of the Project, Program Management Office for International Nuclear Nonproliferation programs. Bill supports the development of programs and problem-solving concepts that  help sites important to national security with the proactive identification and mitigation of external threats to these most secure facilities.

Organizational shadows can be found in physical spaces and at its core/culture; places where we don’t want to look because we’re afraid of what we’ll find.

Organizational shadows can be defined as the things an organization doesn’t want to deal with; the deep, dark utility closet nobody really wants to go into because they’re afraid of what they might find; literally and figuratively.

At Department of Energy (DOE) sites for example, there are certain facilities that are storing low-level and high-level radioactive waste the came out of the Manhattan Project in the 1950s in sealed rooms in some deep basements.  In some cases, those rooms have been sealed for decades and there is a reluctance to open them to see what’s inside.  Because when they do open one of those rooms, it is likely they will find a horrific mess of corroded and open containers with radioactive material spilled all over the place. 

But it’s not just the dark closets and sealed spaces that we’re afraid to look into: organizational shadows also exist when an organization does not want to do the in-depth analysis that would be required to uncover what is really causing poor performance; to investigate what is lying under the surface, and at it’s deepest level, what their culture is really like.  Just like in those rooms containing radioactive waste from the 1950s, they do not want to peek into these shadows because they are afraid of what they are going to find.

Organizational shadows evoke images of locked basement closets and problems that are hiding just out of sight.  What we at BlueDragon are saying, is that we need to be courageous and turn on the lights; a metaphor for saying that we should investigate these shadows using a structured methodology that helps us delve into these dark places (i.e. behavioral, organizational and programmatic issues) and actually indentify and deal with whatever we find; the deepest-seated causes of organizational shortcomings.

What we will find in these shadows are latent organizational weaknesses that exist deep beneath the surface.  In regulated environments or complex operating facilities, there is a framework of programs, processes and procedures that typically includes thousands of applicable requirements.  And because the framework is never perfect, and because humans are involved (adding infinite variability to any process), we know there are scores of latent (undiscovered) organizational weaknesses that are hiding in the shadows.  But in many cases, organizations don’t have a methodology that is powerful enough to shine a light on these weaknesses; to conduct the in-depth analysis required to uncover and address these latent weaknesses.

Another impediment is that management is sometimes (often?) reluctant to do the in-depth analysis and investigations that it takes to uncover and eliminate those shadows.  They simply don’t want to shine a light on these organizational shadows because they may find themselves looking in the mirror, or having to commit to resources and funding that they don’t have to address what they find. It’s far easier and less costly to find and fix the low hanging fruit (i.e., the symptoms), or simply place blame on the nearest vendor or contractor.

But we at BlueDragon want to highlight that there is also a positive side to shining the light on organizational shadows.  Yes, when we turn the lights on, we’re going to see a lot of stuff we may not want to see. But we’re also going to find some hidden treasures there.  If we were to look in our dusty attic or a basement, we might find things that we lost that were really important to us; perhaps some old books or paintings that are now worth a fortune.  When we shine the light on organizational shadows, finding and addressing latent weaknesses can be a boon to business; discovering and fixing what is dragging down performance, lead to organizational excellence. 

If your team can find and address deep-seated latent organizational weaknesses, you prevent the recurrence of the future problems caused by that weakness.  That deep-seated causal factor is not going to continue to generate problems for your organization down the road. The reason why organizations have recurring problems is because they haven´t found their causes.  And those deep-seated causes are the point of origin of multiple cause and effect pathways that end up bypassing all of our defenses (i.e., your programs, processes and procedures) causing events.  The golden nugget is that shining the light on organizational weaknesses is a gift that keeps on giving: finding and fixing deep-seated latent organizational weaknesses is like finding buried treasure.  In this case, the treasure is the time and resources that the organization has wasted on documenting and resolving recurring issues, as well as increased productivity as those resources that are returned to mission critical tasks.

But as we mentioned before, it takes two things to deal with organizational shadows: it takes courage on the part of the executive leadership team; and, it takes a holistic and structured approach that can simultaneously tackle evaluating applicable systems, analyzing quantitative and qualitative information, and conducting the necessary behavioral analysis.  First, it takes a management team willing to take the risk of going into the deep, dark, shadowy places and deal with what they find.  That takes commitment and support to those conducting the investigations, commitment to provide the required resources, and a commitment to address what is uncovered.

 It takes organizational courage to go into these deep dark places and confront these issues, and in our experience, the commitment is not always there.  Second, the methods in place today to investigate organizational issues such as the 5-whys and the Fishbone, are antiquated at best.  (For a detailed discussion on 5-whys and Fishbones, visit our YouTube Training Channel:

Over the past decade, the BlueDragon team has helped Federal Agencies and Energy and Defense contractors to investigate some of their darkest shadows.  There are many other deep, dark places that the BlueDragon team would love to help, if we had the chance.  We could actually get to the heart of things like suicides and sexual assaults in the military.  We could uncover the complex causes of our immigration problems.  And equally importantly, we could shine a light on the lack of literacy in the United States compared to other developed countries. With all due deference to your organization’s scientists and engineers, they are not getting to the deepest-seated causes of issues because they are not problem-solving experts; rather, they are experts in their field of study.  It takes special investigators trained in solving complex human-centric problems in modern socio technical work environments, and that’s what we do here at BlueDragon.

To summarize, it is better to shine a light on organizational shadows and deal with what you might find, than to turn a blind eye to these issues and leave them there for posterity.  But it takes courage and an advanced methodology like BlueDragon to shine a light on the organization’s latent weaknesses and prevent recurring issues that will help recover lost time and resources, and return personnel to mission critical tasks.  Using BlueDragon as your flashlight, you can hunt down those deep-seated issues and prevent their recurrence: the gift that keeps on giving.  

For more information on critical thinking and complex problem-solving, visit our BlueDragon YouTube Training Channel:

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