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Volume 11, Issue 24;   June 15, 2011: The Deck Chairs of the Titanic: Obvious Waste

The Deck Chairs of the Titanic: Obvious Waste


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

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