Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 11, Issue 24;   June 15, 2011: The Deck Chairs of the Titanic: Obvious Waste

The Deck Chairs of the Titanic: Obvious Waste

by

Among the most futile and irrelevant actions ever taken in crisis is rearranging the deck chairs of the Titanic, which, of course, never actually happened. But in the workplace, we engage in activities just as futile and irrelevant, often outside our awareness. Recognition is the first step to prevention.
An actual deck chair recovered from the sunken liner Titanic

An actual deck chair recovered from the sunken liner Titanic. The earliest use of the phrase, "rearranging the deck chairs of the Titanic," appeared in the New York Times of 15 May 1972, describing the activities of the administrators of Lincoln Center. See the Internet Archive for more information. Photo courtesy Titanic.com.

To "rearrange the deck chairs of the Titanic" is a Metaphors and Their Abuses commonly used to describe futile, irrelevant actions taken in times of crisis. It refers to the passenger liner that sank in 1912 after grazing an iceberg in the North Atlantic. Rearranging its deck chairs after the collision would have been futile and irrelevant, if not tragically comical.

The behavior pattern this metaphor suggests is astonishingly common in organizations — astonishing because so much of the work we do is irrelevant to the goals our organizations espouse. These first examples of manifestations of deck-chair behavior emphasize obvious waste.

Attention to deflective activities
Deflective activities are those that we don't need to do right now, and maybe don't ever need to be done. But we apply resources and people to them anyway. Some of those working on deflective activities sense that their efforts are wasted, but they're either afraid to mention this to management, or they've tried already, to no avail. In the worst case, the people working on deflective activities are management.
The truly dangerous deflective activities have no end date and no definite objective. Sometimes their costs aren't tracked at all, which enhances their life expectancy.
Preoccupation with unimportant details
Once in a while, even those who are determined to spend their time rearranging the deck chairs have to work on relevant tasks. But when they do, they tend to invert priorities, occupying themselves with unimportant details.
Examples include preparing beautiful graphics for presentations that have only internal audiences, perfecting the layout of a Web page that's useless or worse because it has outdated or incorrect information, or having meeting after meeting about the color scheme of the third floor while failing to address the facility-wide overcrowding problem.
Cluttering the agenda with low-priority items
In the case of meetings, one very damaging example of priority inversion is agenda cluttering. Agenda clutter is the polyglot collection of low-priority or routine items that fully consume the time of the meeting and the energy of the people In the worst case, the people
working on deflective activities
are management
attending, long before they get down to the important issues.
Sometimes this happens because of rigid adherence to rules, such as "no item shall remain unaddressed for longer than 10 days." Rules such as these force unimportant items to the top of the agenda ahead of issues far more serious. Agenda cluttering can also happen because of an unspoken agreement not to address the difficult issues. By mucking about in the agenda clutter, we can avoid addressing the difficult questions.

In the next part of our exploration, we'll examine behaviors that unnecessarily extend the durations of tasks and projects.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: The Deck Chairs of the Titanic: Task Duration  Next Issue

52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your projects always (or almost always) late and over budget? Are your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around. Read 52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented Organizations, filled with tips and techniques for organizational leaders. Order Now!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrentbZjNfpEnEgjcMAqner@ChacMYvqbnUniPnZAbPioCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:

A stormEmailstorming
Most of us get too much email. Some is spam, but even if we figured out how to eliminate spam, most would still agree that we get too much email. What's happening? And what can we do about it?
A red-tailed hawkAppreciate the Moment
Often, we focus our awareness where we aren't or when we aren't. Whether we're in a heated meeting, or blowing out the candles of a birthday cake, being fully present can make our experiences more positive and memorable. Why are we so often someplace else? When we are, how can we come back? Or better, how can we stay fully present when we want to?
A captive white rhinoFour Popular Ways to Mismanage Layoffs: II
Staff reduction is needed when expenses overtake revenue. But when layoffs are misused, or used too late, they can harm the organization more than they help. Here's Part II of an exploration of four common patterns of mismanagement, and some suggestions for those managers and other employees who recognize the patterns in their own companies.
Gut bacteriaMitigating Outsourcing Risks: I
Outsourcing internal processes modifies the usual risk configuration of those processes, but it also creates a special class of risks that are peculiar to the outsourcing relationship. What are some of those risks and what can we do about them?
An outstanding example of the Utility Pole anti-patternThe Utility Pole Anti-Pattern: I
Organizational processes can get so complicated that nobody actually knows how they work. If getting something done takes too long, the organization can't lead its markets, or even catch up to the leaders. Why does this happen?

See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness and Workplace Politics for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Prof. Tom PettigrewComing February 21: The Ultimate Attribution Error at Work
When we attribute the behavior of members of groups to some cause, either personal or situational, we tend to make systematic errors. Those errors can be expensive and avoidable. Available here and by RSS on February 21.
Daffodils of the variety Narcissus 'Barrett Browning'And on February 28: Narcissistic Behavior at Work: I
Briefly, when people exhibit narcissistic behavior they're engaging in activity that systematically places their own interests and welfare ahead of the interests and welfare of anyone or anything else. It's behavior that threatens the welfare of the organization and everyone employed there. Available here and by RSS on February 28.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbreneDnOlaTEHDRJdRyrner@ChacrlUuEvFDGbQkRPpgoCanyon.com or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.