The Archetypes of Human Work: 1. The Messy Reality

In my last post, I outlined some thoughts on four varieties of human work: work-as-imagined, work-as-prescribed, work-as-disclosed and work-as-done. As with most things, what is most interesting about these varieties concerns their relationships and interactions. Considering the various zones of the figure below – where the varieties overlap or don’t overlap – it is possible to recognise a number of archetypes, patterns or forms concerning the relationship between the varieties of human work, which will be familiar to many once seen.

In this post, I outline seven such ‘archetypes of human work’. This is not to say these are the only archetypes, and the archetypes do not necessarily characterise the zones that they inhabit. But they have shown themselves repeatedly in my experience of research and practice in organisations, and may well be recognisable to you. To sensecheck and exemplify the archetypes, a number of healthcare clinicians have kindly provided examples. These clinicians have helped to refine the archetypes themselves. If you have further examples – from any industry – please provide an example as a comment or get in touch. More examples will be added over time.

The seven archetypes that will be outlined are:

  1. The Messy Reality (this Archetype)
  2. Congruence
  3. Taboo
  4. Ignorance and Fantasy
  5. Projection
  6. P.R. and Subterfuge
  7. Defunct

These archetypes will be outlined in this and subsequent posts.

Archetype 1: The Messy Reality


Archetype 1: The Messy Reality

Composition: work-as-done but not as-prescribed and usually not as-imagined (may or may not be as-disclosed).

Short description: Much work-as-done is not as prescribed (either different to procedures, guidelines, etc, or where there are no procedures), and is usually not known to others who are not at the sharp end of the work. The focus of The Messy Reality is the actual work and the messy details.

What is it?

The Messy Reality is characterised by the kinds of adjustments, adaptations, variations, trade-offs, compromises, and workarounds that are hard to prescribe and hard to see from afar, but can become accepted and unremarkable from the inside. Mostly, such variability is deliberate, but sometimes is unintended. As such, this archetype will be familiar to almost everyone.

The work-as-done that is characteristic of this archetype may or may not be disclosed by those who do the work. It is not necessarily secret (as is more characteristic of Taboo). The key point is more that work-as-done is not as prescribed, and probably not as-imagined or known by others. This archetype is common and applies to much specialist activity in most sectors, e.g., healthcare, banking, WebOps, shipping, and agriculture.

Why does it exist?

The archetype exists for a few reasons, associated with the nature of work-as-prescribed, work-as-done and work-as-imagined. Much work-as-done is not prescribed to any significant degree, especially where the work is so simple that it does not need to be prescribed, or so complex that it cannot be prescribed, even if attempts are or were once made. It is not necessary, possible nor desirable to prescribe all human work. Even if some major steps in a process are prescribed, much of the underlying or related activity is not. It can’t be.

This archetype provides important discretionary space in which practitioners can operate, since the various adjustments, adaptations, trade-offs, compromises, and workarounds that characterise work-as-done are necessary to meet demand under (often normal) system conditions involving degraded resources, inappropriate constraints, perverse incentives, goal conflicts, and production pressure. More generally work evolves over time, and prescribed work proves too inflexible or too fragile to cope with real conditions. Over the longer term, these adaptations may result in a drift from prescribed policy, procedure, standards or guidelines, assuming any such prescription is in place.

This archetype is reinforced by a lack of contact between those who do the work, and those who design, make decisions about, or influence the work (e.g., senior managers, purchasers, HR, regulators and policy makers), who may operate in the Ignorance and Fantasy archetype. Much work-as-done is taken for granted, neither observed nor discussed meaningfully outside of the immediate working environment, and so the messy details remain known only to those who do the actual work. The Messy Reality is therefore ignored or denied (perhaps glossed over with P.R. and Subterfuge). Even where there is an imagination of work-as-done (and associated system conditions), decision makers may turn a blind eye or encourage The Messy Reality, either because stuff gets done or because the costs of fixing sources of mess are seen as too great.

Shadow side

Work-as-done but not as-imagined by others is mostly unproblematic. The Messy Reality does provide important discretionary space for practitioners to meet demand. But The Messy Reality masks a multitude of degraded system conditions involving demand, pressure, capacity, staffing, competence, equipment, procedures, supplies, time, etc. To create flow, more adjustments, adaptations, trade-offs, compromises, and workarounds are required. Performance variability (short term fluctuations or longer term biases and trends), while necessary, may become problematic.

An underlying problem with The Messy Reality is its coexistence with the archetype Ignorance and Fantasy. When work-as-done is not understood by decision makers, problems and drift toward danger may well be invisible, both to the worker in-group (e.g., due to habituation) and to various out-groups (due to ignorance). For some time, a drift into failure may be invisible – masked by inadequate measurement, safety margins, or deliberate P.R. and Subterfuge, but practitioners will tend to feel – as a minimum – uncomfortable. Their concerns may be initially disclosed (formally via reporting systems or letters, or informally), but this disclosure is often discontinued if no timely and appropriate action is taken in response. This decline in disclosure convinces those at the blunt end that the problem no longer exists or was never really a problem, thus feeding the Ignorance and Fantasy archetype and associated blunt-end decisions that create systems of problems – messes.

When things go wrong in The Messy Reality, outcomes are often attributed to the choices that practitioners make, especially when these are different to the work-as-prescribed. Often, such attributions take insufficient account of context, and instead take the form of simplistic labels (‘violation’, ‘non-compliance’, ‘rule breaking’, etc), while choices made at the blunt-end of design, management, and regulation, which may influence, shape or encourage such sharp-end decisions, are rarely labeled the same. This dynamic exists even in the absence of detailed prescription of work. For instance, if an organisation does not have a policy on a potentially problematic issue, such as the use of mobile devices in environments such as air traffic control, then practitioners could be blamed for their choices in case of an incident or accident, even when practices are known or imagined. Ultimately, The Messy Reality, can become a liability in terms of regulation and law, both to the organisation and to individual practitioners.

Examples (Healthcare)

Certain clinical situations are volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous (VUCA) and time critical and they can highlight different aspects of ‘The Messy Reality’.  For example, a patient with a ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysm, if they reach hospital alive, will require immediate transfer to theatre for the life threatening bleeding to be stopped and a new vessel to be grafted into place.  The complex and dynamic nature of the case deems that it cannot be prescribed and so the practitioner has to operate within the discretionary space. This allows the practitioner the necessary freedom to treat the changes as they arise and potentially to deviate from ‘standard operating procedures’ (SOPs). These SOPs are ordinarily designed for non-emergency work and have a number of ‘safety steps’ inherent within them. There are important steps such as identifying the patient, procedure and allergies and form part of the wider WHO ‘five steps to safety’ but also other points less critical but important, especially in the non-emergency setting. It is commonplace for the practitioner to deviate from the SOPs and to perform an ad-hoc, yet necessary, streamlining of this process in order to proceed at the appropriate pace and to treat physiological changes as they present themselves.  This can give rise to a number of issues. Firstly, I have known this deviation to create friction amongst the team at this critical time that is generally not helpful in both proceeding with the work and maintaining team harmony. Secondly, if the outcome for the patient is poor and the case is investigated, I have known for practitioners to be admonished for their deviation from the SOPs, although they nominally relate to the non-emergency setting. This is in stark contrast to if there is a good patient outcome as the deviation is often not even noted, or highlighted as potentially being intrinsic to the positive outcome. Lastly there is often a corporate response that seeks to prescribe the work that is by definition VUCA and cannot be prescribed. Ultimately, I believe that on balance practitioners benefit from The Messy Reality as it is when the work is at its most complicated and cannot be prescribed that autonomy and professional judgment can be exercised most readily for the benefit of the patient. 

Dr Alistair Hellewell, Anaesthetist, @AlHellewell

The ‘normalised’ unsafe practice of hyperventilation during cardiac arrest management provides a comprehensive example of The Messy Reality archetype. It has become evident, from analysing retrospective observational data, that during the procedure of cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), medical practitioners (usually anaesthetists) almost always deliver too much pressurised oxygen/air to the lungs of patients (both adults and children). Traditional Safety-I concepts may regard this as a ‘violation’, in that that this practice continues to occur despite a succession of recommendations in international guidelines to the contrary, supported by the established and widespread provision of systematic, organised education and training. However, when directly questioned, anaesthetists demonstrate a clear, functional knowledge that such practice is detrimental to patient outcome. When contemplating this behaviour we must consider the following. Firstly, there is no intention for airway management practitioners to deliberately hyperventilate a patient. Secondly, these clinicians do not know that they are hyperventilating patients during the period that it is actually happening. Thirdly, there is not ordinarily any recognition or acknowledgement that they may have hyperventilated the patient after the clinical intervention has been discontinued. Despite the fact that this issue is widely known to anaesthetists, others (particularly at the blunt end) would generally be ignorant of the issue. 

Ken Spearpoint, Emeritus Consultant Nurse, @k_g_spearpoint

Radiology request forms are meant to be completed and signed by the person requesting the procedure. In the operating theatre, the surgeon is usually scrubbed and sterile, therefore the anaesthetist often fills out and signs the form despite this being “against the rules”. Managers in radiology refused to believe that the radiographers carrying out the procedures in theatre were “allowing” this deviation from the rules.


The use of clinical early warning scores is well established in secondary care. More recently, the use of the National Early Warning Score in primary care has been promoted as a way to aid the identification and appropriate management of sepsis. A score is calculated based on the value of each of the following physiological parameters: temperature, pulse rate, blood pressure, oxygen saturations, respiratory rate and level of consciousness. When interviewed, most general practitioners (GPs) stated that, although they do not calculate the overall NEWS score, they always record the relevant observations when they are concerned about sepsis. On analysis of referral letters of adults admitted with an infective cause from out-of-hours primary care to secondary care, all physiological parameters necessary for the NEWS score were recorded in 50% of patients but when the admission diagnosis was given as sepsis or possible sepsis, the values were only complete in 30% of cases. When this is explored with GPs using specific cases it becomes clear that often the decision for rapid admission is made on temperature, pulse and often the ‘look’ of the patient. Rather than measuring other parameters (such as respiratory rate) the GP decides to start arranging admission as further evidence is not needed to guide their next action. This is a more efficient if less thorough approach. (Early findings of work – unpublished at present.)

Duncan McNab, General Practitioner, @Duncansmcnab.

Hospital policy is that free samples of drugs may not be accepted from pharmaceutical companies, and that all supplies of drugs should be ordered and received via the pharmacy department. However, drug company representatives have been known to bypass this by directly offering/sending free drug samples directly to consultants.

Anonymous, Pharmacist.

Pharmacists and technicians provide support to care homes to carry out medication reviews and support repeat ordering. One piece of documentation we use to support this is the Medicines Administration Record (MAR). These are generated by the community pharmacy, which supplies the medication. This in itself is not deemed a care home confidential document until such a time as the care home starts to use them to note administration of medications. At this point, access to it by anyone but care home staff requires consent. We do obtain patient/welfare/proxy consent to undertake our work, but technically, as the MAR sheets are issued monthly and can be different on a monthly basis, we should be getting monthly consent. This would make it unworkable and unmanageable.

Anonymous, Pharmacist.


About stevenshorrock

I am a systems ergonomist/human factors specialist and work psychologist with a background in practice and research in safety-critical industries. My main interest is human and system behaviour in the context of safety-related organisations. I seek to enable improvement via a combination of systems thinking, design thinking and humanistic thinking. I am a Chartered Ergonomist and Human Factors Specialist with the CIEHF and a Chartered Psychologist with the British Psychological Society. I currently work as a human factors and safety specialist in air traffic control in Europe. I am also an Adjunct Senior Lecturer at the University of New South Wales, School of Aviation. I blog in a personal capacity. Views expressed here are mine and not those of any affiliated organisation, unless stated otherwise. You can find me on twitter at @stevenshorrock
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6 Responses to The Archetypes of Human Work: 1. The Messy Reality

  1. Pingback: The Archetypes of Human Work: 2. Congruence | Humanistic Systems

  2. Pingback: The Archetypes of Human Work: 3. Taboo | Humanistic Systems

  3. Pingback: The Archetypes of Human Work: 4. Ignorance and Fantasy | Humanistic Systems

  4. Pingback: The Archetypes of Human Work: 5. Projection | Humanistic Systems

  5. Pingback: The Archetypes of Human Work: 6. P.R. and Subterfuge | Humanistic Systems

  6. Pingback: The Archetypes of Human Work: 7. Defunct | Humanistic Systems

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