Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 11, Issue 26;   June 29, 2011: The Deck Chairs of the Titanic: Strategy

The Deck Chairs of the Titanic: Strategy

by

Much of what we call work is about as effective and relevant as rearranging the deck chairs of the Titanic. We continue our exploration of futile and irrelevant work, this time emphasizing behaviors related to strategy.
Portrait of Benjamin Lincoln (1733-1810), Major General of the Continental Army during the American Revo|-|lu|-|tionary War

Portrait of Benjamin Lincoln (1733-1810), Major General of the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War, and Secretary of War 1781-1783. Painting by Charles Willson Peale. Gen. Lincoln commanded units in Georgia and the Carolinas in 1778-80, during the British southern campaign. Captured at Charleston in 1780, he was ultimately released in an exchange. Commanding a Continental division in the battle of Yorktown, he is the general who formally accepted the British surrender there.

The British Southern Strategy was probably doomed from the start. Conceived as what we now consider a classic counterinsurgency campaign, it was based, in part, on the mistaken belief by the British that the southern colonies were populated by large numbers of Loyalists who could be armed and equipped to form an effective force to oppose the rebels. This belief rested on intelligence gained from Loyalist exiles in London, many of whom had much to gain economically from British victory, and who recognized that exaggeration of the facts would be in their own interest. Still, by 1779, more than a year after the onset of the British southern campaign, the British had ample evidence that the basis of their strategy was at least questionable. Yet they pressed on, rigidly adhering to what was by then a failed — or at least failing — strategy, and ultimately surrendered over 7,000 soldiers at Yorktown in October 19, 1781. More about Gen. Lincoln, More about the British Southern Strategy

The portrait was probably painted during Gen. Lincoln's term as Secretary of War before October 13, 1784. The painting is listed in the 1795 Peale Museum catalog. Purchased by the City of Philadelphia at the 1854 Peale Museum sale. Photo courtesy U.S. National Parks Service Museum.

In the modern workplace, much effort is irrelevant to the goals espoused by the organization — so much, in fact, that exploring the causes of useless work is worthwhile. In this part of our exploration, we focus on examples of deck-chair-rearranging pertaining to strategic decision-making. See for a discussion of obvious waste, and for a discussion of task duration.

Insupportably detailed plans
Adequate planning is critical to the success of any complex project, but planning in detail not justified by current knowledge is wasteful. It can even threaten success, because it limits flexibility and closes our minds to alternatives. (More on lock-in) By contrast, "just-in-time" planning, the essence of agile development, tends to preserve flexibility.
Excessively detailed planning can be viewed as scope creep in the planning process; or as a manifestation of perfectionism; or as a result of hoarding of the planning budget or schedule or both. More
Preoccupation with efficiency over effectiveness
In manufacturing, efficiency is effectiveness, but in knowledge work, distinguishing the two is essential. About 30 years ago, management theorists came to recognize that efficiency relates to using resources wisely, given an objective, while effectiveness relates to selecting objectives wisely, given a set of resources.
In knowledge work, emphasizing efficiency over effectiveness risks engaging in deck-chair-rearranging behavior. In meetings, for example, we sometimes debate how to discuss an issue, without considering whether that issue is worth discussing at all.
Impulsively changing strategy
Sometimes we must change strategy — at times, suddenly. When it's appropriate, we call this behavior flexibility. But a pattern of sudden, inappropriate changes is something else: impulsiveness. Impulsiveness can arise along with the urge to hoard, or to expand scope, or to plan in excessive detail.
For example, In knowledge work, emphasizing
efficiency over effectiveness
risks engaging in deck-chair-
rearranging behavior
when a strategy "threatens" to succeed, and deck-chair-rearrangers fear the result of task completion, they can feel an urge to change strategy. Conversely, when things aren't going well, deck-chair-rearrangers can impulsively adopt a new strategy, rather than addressing and learning from the issues that have arisen.
Rigid adherence to failing strategies
Ironically, rigid adherence to failing strategies can also be part of the deck-chair pattern. Rigid adherence can arise when, instead of focusing on organizational goals, we focus on proving that we were right, and that the strategy we adopted can succeed.
Unlike other examples of the deck-chair pattern, rigid adherence to failed strategies is evident even to distant observers. Unfortunately, when they intervene, they usually terminate or reassign a single individual, rather than addressing the deck-chair pattern, which is often systemic.

Although your organization might be free of strategic deck-chair behavior, individuals might still advocate for it, albeit unwittingly. Can you think of anyone you know who might be doing it now? First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: You Might Be Stressed If...  Next Issue

For more about scope creep, see "Ground Level Sources of Scope Creep," Point Lookout for July 18, 2012; "The Perils of Political Praise," Point Lookout for May 19, 2010; "More Indicators of Scopemonging," Point Lookout for August 29, 2007; "Scopemonging: When Scope Creep Is Intentional," Point Lookout for August 22, 2007; "Some Causes of Scope Creep," Point Lookout for September 4, 2002; and "The Deck Chairs of the Titanic: Task Duration," Point Lookout for June 22, 2011.

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? rbrencFjOOmkPhgpNzwdoner@ChacROYnUjyOYnAgcYDRoCanyon.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:

Ice cream barMake Space for Serendipity
Serendipity in project management is rare, in part, because we're under too much pressure to see it. If we can reduce the pressure, wonderful things happen.
Apple PieGive Me the Bad News First
I have good news and bad news. The bad news is that if you wait long enough, there will be some bad news. The good news is that the good news helps us deal with the bad news. And it helps a lot more if we get the bad news first.
An anxious dogInner Babble
It goes by various names — self-talk, inner dialog, or internal conversation. Because it is so often disorganized and illogical, I like to call it inner babble. But whatever you call it, it's often misleading, distracting, and unhelpful. How can you recognize inner babble?
A wild turkeyIt's a Wonderful Day!
Most knowledge workers are problem solvers. We work towards goals. We anticipate problems as best we can, and when problems appear, we solve them. But our focus on anticipating problems can become a problem in itself — at work and in Life.
A portrait of Matthew Lyon, printer, farmer, soldier, politicianHow to Foresee the Foreseeable: Recognize Haste
When trouble arises after we commit to a course of action, we sometimes feel that the trouble was foreseeable. One technique for foreseeing the foreseeable depends on recognizing haste in the decision-making process.

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

The United States curling team at the Torino Olympics in 2006Coming November 22: Motivation and the Reification Error
We commit the reification error when we assume, incorrectly, that we can treat abstract constructs as if they were real objects. It's a common error when we try to motivate people. Available here and by RSS on November 22.
A human marionetteAnd on November 29: Manipulators Beware
When manipulators try to manipulate others, they're attempting to unscrupulously influence their targets to decide or act in some way the manipulators prefer. But some targets manage to outwit their manipulators. Available here and by RSS on November 29.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrendODxxjaBbwUosAPmner@ChacuBopFJArjVFWlkPkoCanyon.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

Ten Project Management Fallacies: The Power of Avoiding Hazards
Most Ten Project Management Fallaciesof what we know about managing projects is useful and effective, but some of what we know "just ain't so." Identifying the fallacies of project management reduces risk and enhances your ability to complete projects successfully. Even more important, avoiding these traps can demonstrate the value and power of the project management profession in general, and your personal capabilities in particular. In this program we describe ten of these beliefs. There are almost certainly many more, but these ten are a good start. We'll explore the situations where these fallacies are most likely to expose projects to risk, and suggest techniques for avoiding them. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

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.
21st Century Business TravelAre your business trips long chains of stressful misadventures? Have you ever wondered if there's a better way to get from here to there relaxed and refreshed? First class travel is one alternative, but you can do almost as well (without the high costs) if you know the tricks of the masters of 21st-century e-enabled business travel…
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.