Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 1, Issue 5;   January 31, 2001: The Zebra Effect

The Zebra Effect

by

If you're feeling overwhelmed by all the items on your To-Do list, and if you start on one only to realize that you have to tackle three more you didn't know about before you can finish that one, you could be experiencing the Zebra Effect.
A zebra

How long is your To-Do list? Too long, probably. So long that you barely have time to maintain it. Have you ever started to work on one item, only to find that you can't deal with it until you address something else? Do you ever add a completed item to your list, just for the pleasure of checking off something?

We can track only so many issues at once, and when we try to resolve them, the interactions between them make it hard to know where to start. We become confused by the tangle of problems we face.

I call this phenomenon the Zebra Effect, because it's so much like the problem the lioness faces on a zebra hunt. We can deal with it, but we must take some lessons from the lioness.

When the zebras run from the lioness, they run in a herd, because a zebra's stripes are its best defense. In a galloping herd, the stripes jumble and seem to intermingle, and the lioness, which cannot see color, is unable to resolve a single zebra from among the herd. Unless one of the zebras somehow becomes separated from the herd, the lioness is unlikely to be successful. The genius of the lioness as a hunter is her ability to force the right zebra to separate from the herd.

Organizational
problems,
like zebras,
travel
in herds
Organizational problems use the same defense the zebras do — they travel in herds to protect each other. As the hunter, your strategy most likely to succeed is to isolate and make visible the next solvable problem, reducing the field of problems one by one. Just as in a zebra hunt, solving one problem makes the next one more solvable and skipping the wrong one makes the next one less solvable. Here are some tips derived from hunting zebra.

  • The number of issues you face is a problem in itself. Do whatever you can to keep the issue count as low as possible.
  • The issues you can't deal with at all do keep you from zeroing in on those you can deal with. Eliminate from the list anything you know you simply cannot do yet. Put it on a "To Do Later" list and get it out of the way.
  • Some issues are well isolated, with little connection to others. Hunt them down and get them done. Next, go after those that have relatively little connection to other issues or to things beyond your control.

Keep in mind that to get at any one problem might require that you first solve one that you don't know about yet, and you might not find out about the hidden problem until you begin. When that happens, do what the lioness does — go after a different zebra. Go to top Top  Next issue: The Tweaking CC  Next Issue

For applications of the Zebra Effect, see "Figuring Out What to Do First," Point Lookout for June 4, 2003; "Keep a Not-To-Do List," Point Lookout for December 26, 2001; and "Devious Political Tactics: More from the Field Manual," Point Lookout for August 29, 2012.

Rick BrennerThe article you've been reading is an archived issue of Point Lookout, my weekly newsletter. I've been publishing it since January, 2001, free to all subscribers, over the Web, and via RSS. You can help keep it free by donating either as an individual or as an organization. You'll receive in return my sincere thanks — and the comfort of knowing that you've helped to propagate insights and perspectives that can help make our workplaces a little more human-friendly. More

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenKSQHHXyjVOKkqIwiner@ChacElBMxZHxaQipwjePoCanyon.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 cup of coffeeShooting Ourselves in the Feet
When you give a demo to a small audience, there's a danger of overwhelming them in a behavior I call "swarming." Here are some tips for terrific demos to small audiences.
Henry David ThoreauEncourage Truth Telling
Getting to the truth can be a difficult task for managers. People sometimes withhold, spin, or slant reports, especially when the implications are uncomfortable or threatening. A culture that supports truth telling can be an organization's most valuable asset.
A meetingHow to Make Meetings Worth Attending
Many of us spend seemingly endless hours in meetings that seem dull, ineffective, or even counterproductive. Here are some insights to keep in mind that might help make meetings more worthwhile — and maybe even fun.
Example of an unsecured driver-side floor mat trapping the accelerator pedal in a 2007 Toyota Lexus ES350Risk Management Risk: I
Risk Management Risk is the risk that a particular risk management plan is deficient. It's often overlooked, and therefore often unmitigated. We can reduce this risk by applying some simple procedures.
Space Shuttle Columbia during the launch of its final missionHow to Reject Expert Opinion: II
When groups of decision-makers confront complex problems, and they receive opinions from recognized experts, those opinions sometimes conflict with the group's own preferences. What tactics do groups use to reject the opinions of people with relevant expertise?

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Raquel Welch (left) and Gilda Radner (right) from a @Cite{Saturday Night Live rehearsal, April 24, 1976Coming December 20: Conceptual Mondegreens
When we disagree about abstractions, such as a problem solution, or a competitor's strategy, the cause can often be misunderstanding the abstraction. That misunderstanding can be a conceptual mondegreen. Available here and by RSS on December 20.
An engineer attending a meeting with 14 other engineersAnd on December 27: On Assigning Responsibility for Creating Trouble
When we assign responsibility for troubles that bedevil us, we often make mistakes. We can be misled by language, stereotypes, and the assumptions we make about others. Available here and by RSS on December 27.

Coaching services

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

Person-to-Person Communications: Models and Applications
When Person-to-Person Communications: Models and Applicationswe talk, listen, send or read emails, read or write memos, or when we leave or listen to voice mail messages, we're communicating person-to-person. And whenever we communicate person-to-person, we risk being misunderstood, offending others, feeling hurt, and being confused. There are so many ways for things to go wrong that we could never learn how to fix all the problems. A more effective approach avoids problems altogether, or at least minimizes their occurrence. In this very interactive program we'll explain — and show you how to use — a model of inter-personal communications that can help you stay out of the ditch. We'll place particular emphasis on a very tricky situation — expressing your personal power. In those moments of intense involvement, when we're most likely to slip, you'll have a new tool to use to keep things constructive. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

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 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!
52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around.
Reader Comments About My Newsletter
A sampling:
  • Your stuff is brilliant! Thank you!
  • You and Scott Adams both secretly work here, right?
  • I really enjoy my weekly newsletters. I appreciate the quick read.
  • A sort of Dr. Phil for Management!
  • …extremely accurate, inspiring and applicable to day-to-day … invaluable.
  • More
101 Tips for Managing ConflictFed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you the target of a bully? Learn how to make peace with conflict.
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.
Comprehensive collection of all e-books and e-bookletsSave a bundle and even more important save time! Order the Combo Package and download all ebooks and tips books at once.