Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 15, Issue 29;   July 22, 2015: Down in the Weeds: I

Down in the Weeds: I

by

When someone says, "I think we're down in the weeds," a common meaning is that we're focusing on inappropriate — and possibly irrelevant — details. How does this happen and what can we do about it?
An A-10 Thunderbolt II over Afghanistan in 2011

An A-10 Thunderbolt II over Afghanistan in 2011. A-10s are the only U.S. aircraft type specifically designed for close air support, which involves flying at low altitudes. In the United States, usage of the term "down in the weeds" in a business context to mean "overly concerned with detail" became common just after the turn of the century, but linguists differ as to its origin. In Air Force slang, to fly at low altitudes is to be "in the weeds," a term that is perhaps better suited to environments more heavily vegetated than Afghanistan. The use of the term in the air combat context traces back at least to 1982, in a piece about the F-4 Phantom that appeared in the July, 1982, issue of Car and Driver. It's likely that the term was in use during the Korean conflict, as suggested in Down in the Weeds: Close Air Support in Korea, by William T. Y'Blood.

U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. William Greer courtesy Wikipedia.

It can happen in our meetings. It can happen in our problem solving sessions. It can happen in our writing. It can happen in our minds. We begin reaching for a high-level goal, we encounter an obstacle, we start working around it, and we come upon another obstacle. We start working around that, and we find yet another obstacle. On it goes, obstacle after obstacle, and before long, we've lost sight of whatever it was we set out to do in the first place. Sometimes, we can't even recall what it was we were actually trying to do, or how we got to wherever we are.

We're down in the weeds.

And when we get down in the weeds, often, we don't even realize we're lost.

In conversation, we can get down in the weeds in less than 10 minutes. In projects, we can do it in less than a week. Or overnight. It can happen to individuals, groups, teams, divisions, companies, and nations. The bigger the entity, and the loftier the goal, the longer it takes to get down in the weeds, but it can happen to any entity, and it's always a tragedy.

What can we do about this?

Understand what the weeds are
The weeds are often identified as details. An item is a "detail" when it's relevant, but it isn't ours to deal with right now, or possibly ever. An item is a "detail" when thinking about it is premature, because the higher-level plan might still change so as to render the item irrelevant.
But not all weeds are details. We could be in the weeds when we're spending effort dealing with matters only remotely connected to our ultimate goal. Or when we're spending effort on items that seem connected to our goal, but when that connection is tenuous because the higher-level plan is still changing.
Notice the weeds a little sooner
It might seem Sometimes, we can't even recall
what it was we were actually
trying to do, or how we
got to wherever we are
that once we know what weeds are, we can avoid them. Not so. Noticing that we've strayed from the primary objective is difficult because our attention tends to fix on the most immediate issues.
Mental discipline can help maintain attention on the objective, in spite of the most insistent weed-like matters. Regular reminders of goals are helpful — every few minutes in a meeting, every week in a project, every month for a business unit, or every quarter for the enterprise.
Two ideas: (1) My screen saver reads: "Are you working on something that really matters?" (2) In meetings, designate someone as a weed detector and give him or her authority to halt the meeting's proceedings whenever the group might be in the weeds.

We'll continue next time with suggestions for avoiding the weeds altogether and for getting out of them as quickly as possible. Next in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Down in the Weeds: II  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? rbrendlxkSubjFThcyMXWner@ChacBPCSQytVgKXPejPtoCanyon.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:

The Thinker PowerPointingThink Before You PowerPoint
Microsoft PowerPoint is a useful tool. Many of us use it daily to create presentations that guide meetings or focus discussions. Like all tools, it can be abused — it can be a substitute for constructive dialog, and even for thought. What can we do about PowerPoint abuse?
DeadlockDealing with Deadlock
At times it seems that nothing works. Whenever we try to get moving, we encounter obstacles. If we try to go around them, we find more obstacles. How do we get stuck? And how can we get unstuck?
The giant sequoiaThe Good, the Bad, and the Complicated
In fiction and movies, the world is often simple. There's a protagonist, a goal, and a series of obstacles. The protagonists and goals are good, and the obstacles are bad. Real life is more complicated.
The bark of the American SycamoreMitigating Outsourcing Risks: II
Outsourcing internal processes exposes the organization to a special class of risks that are peculiar to the outsourcing relationship. Here is Part II of a discussion of what some of those risks are and what can we do about them.
Illustrating the concept of local maximumFalse Summits: II
When climbers encounter "false summits," hope of an early end to the climb comes to an end. The psychological effects can threaten the morale and even the safety of the climbing party. So it is in project work.

See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness and Project Management for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A human marionetteComing 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.
Desperation at workAnd on December 6: Reframing Revision Resentment: I
From time to time, we're required to revise something previously produced — some copy, remarks, an announcement, code, the Mona Lisa, whatever… When we do, some of us experience frustration, and view the assignment as an onerous chore. Here are some alternative perspectives that might ease the burden. Available here and by RSS on December 6.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenxSmONxxiiUttOKSHner@ChacrecCeOSuvipXStkHoCanyon.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.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy new 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.