From corporate politics, there is no respite

Google and Apple may be very different companies, but anyone who worked at both knows they share at least one thing: an incredible amount of bullshit you have to go through to get anything done.

Imagine an organization of 101 people— ten managers, each managing nine rank and file employees. The managers report to the CEO. Everyone is honest, idealistic, and genuinely committed to the work. The managers, the CEO and the rank and file employees all trust each other.

Every Friday the CEO gets together with the managers for a group meeting. One by one the managers go through their projects and report progress. "This item's done, still working on this one"— that sort of thing. This way the CEO understands the full state of the company and all the managers can coordinate with their reports in case any cross-functional issues arise.

So far so good. But one manager is a little more politically savvy than others. He knows that the company is growing, and soon some of his peers will be promoted to organizational leaders. In other words they'll be managing managers now, and have multiple teams under their control. The salary is higher, the prestige is higher, and he really wants to get that promotion.

Except, how can he get it? Everyone is already working pretty hard and everyone is competent. His team can't work any harder or any smarter. How can he stand out from the pack? He thinks about it a bit and figures out a neat little trick. Next time he breaks down the details of a project for the CEO, he splits it into tasks with a slightly higher granularity than he normally would. Not too much higher— there isn't anything fishy here. Just instead of breaking up the project into ten tasks he breaks it up into twelve.

The Friday meeting rolls in, and then the next one, and then the next one. Everything is chugging along as usual, except that the CEO notices that our manager's team is doing slightly more work than everyone else. He thanks the manager for working so hard. And hey, let's grab lunch and brainstorm how we can lighten the load a bit and maybe make your team's job a little easier.

Of course the other managers aren't stupid. Most are preoccupied with their own work, but a couple who happen to know this area in detail see that the tasks are slightly less substantive than how they would have presented them. They don't even necessarily think that the manager did it on purpose. All they know is that they look worse in front of their colleagues than they could have. Which normally wouldn't be a big deal, they don't care that much about the credit, except there are these promotions coming up, and it would be really nice to get a wider area of responsibility.

So they start using a higher task granularity too. Then more managers notice, and pretty soon the last person who hasn't caught on is looking worse than everyone else. But not for long. The CEO takes him aside. "We're all working pretty hard to ship this thing, could you maybe push your team a little harder?"

In game theory terms, this means pure idealism isn't a stable equilibrium in a corporation. All it takes is for one person to defect and the entire organization quickly becomes as political as that one person. Which in practice means that an organization is as political as its most political member.

Exactly how political can we expect the most political member (and therefore the organization) to be? Look at our unscrupulous manager again. Now that everyone has adopted his presentation tactic, he's no longer ahead of the pack. The organization is slightly more political, but everyone is in exactly the same spot they were in at the very beginning! Our manager has to invent a new trick to stand out, and if he doesn't, someone else well.

This process will continue recursively, and the organization will become more and more political over time. How far does that go? As far as it can, until the politics meets some counteracting force that stops it. In extreme cases like Enron and Theranos that force is the legal system putting people in jail. But usually it doesn't get that far. Occasionally someone will push things too far and get fired. That slows down politics creep for a while. Audits and press coverage are a counteracting force too. And the personalities of the CEO and the board really matter.

But generally you can expect organizations of a similar size in the same sector to have about the same level of politics. Google and Apple may be very different companies, but anyone who worked at both knows they share at least one thing: an incredible amount of bullshit you have to go through to get anything done. From corporate politics, there is no respite.