Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 12, Issue 28;   July 11, 2012: Wacky Words of Wisdom: III

Wacky Words of Wisdom: III

by

Adages are so elegantly stated that we have difficulty doubting them. Here's Part III of a collection of often-misapplied adages.
The business end of a spark plug

The business end of a spark plug, a com­ponent of an in­ternal combustion engine. The spark plug is responsible for igniting the fuel-air mixture that fills the combustion chamber in each one of the cylinders of an internal combustion engine. The curved metal arm at the top of the photo is one electrode, and the central post, surrounded by a white ceramic insulator, is the other. A spark is visible arcing between the two electrodes.

The electrodes of a spark plug provide a useful metaphor for understanding conflict in a human system. Both electrodes are necessary for sparking. Assigning greater responsibility to one electrode or another isn't a useful approach to understanding the internal combustion engine. Nor are the electrodes alone sufficient for sparking. A complex system consisting of wires, coils, a battery, an alternator, and much more, is absolutely necessary to make the spark jump the gap between the electrodes of the spark plug.

So it is with most conflicts in organizations. The two people who play the roles of the electrodes are probably only part of the "circuit." Photo courtesy Auto Care Experts.

Back in June, we looked at Part II of our collection of over-generalized adages — wacky words of wisdom (see "Wacky Words of Wisdom: II," Point Lookout for June 6, 2012). Here's a third installment.

Nothing is particularly hard if you divide it into small jobs
These words, due to Henry Ford, were probably meant to apply to manufacturing — specifically to assembly line work. They capture a belief widely held, especially in Western societies, that we can accomplish any complex task by decomposing it into smaller, more manageable tasks. But does it apply to tasks of absolutely every kind? Does it apply to medical diagnosis? Designing a flood control system? Formulating economic policy? Writing legislation?
Division strategies are valid for a class of tasks that we might call divisible. But some tasks might be only partially divisible, or not divisible at all. For example, for some diseases or disease combinations, accurate diagnosis requires a grasp of the totality of a patient's health. When success depends on grasping the whole, or when success depends on grasping portions that seem at first to be unrelated, division doesn't work. What's worse, for indivisible tasks, determining divisibility is often itself an indivisible task. An increasing portion of all modern work just isn't divisible. Dividing indivisible tasks invites disaster.
If you want something done right, do it yourself
This adage is often used as a basis for infringing previously delegated responsibility, or for micromanaging, or for obsessive review of delegated work. These behaviors all contribute to nightmarish relationships between supervisors and their subordinates.
Those who An increasing portion of modern
work just isn't divisible. Dividing
indivisible tasks invites disaster.
take this "advice" to heart have most likely misidentified the problem. They believe, incorrectly, that their problem is incompetent or negligent subordinates. More likely, the problem is that their standards are unreasonable; or standards are so fluid that subordinates cannot keep current; or standards have not been effectively communicated; or supervisor/subordinate relations have broken down; or the output quality assessment process is biased, unfair, or inaccurate; or the supervisor is determined to prove that only the supervisor is competent. These are only examples of a host of serious problems. All are extremely difficult to address unassisted.
If two people can't get along, one or both are to blame
This widely believed but rarely articulated idea has a partner: "If everyone has difficulty working with X, the problem is in X." Both ideas are sometimes applicable, but only careful investigation can determine applicability. It's safest to keep an open mind about the source of the difficulty, pending investigation.
Difficulty between any pair of people usually arises from complex interactions involving many others, including the team lead or the supervisor(s). It's rare — though possible — that one person or one pair of individuals is the cause of trouble. More often, everyone plays a part.

Many more of these misleading beliefs are floating around out there. I'm sure I'll have another installment soon. First in this series | Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Ground Level Sources of Scope Creep  Next Issue

For more examples, see "Wacky Words of Wisdom," Point Lookout for July 14, 2010, "Wacky Words of Wisdom: II," Point Lookout for June 6, 2012, "Wacky Words of Wisdom: IV," Point Lookout for August 5, 2015, and "Wacky Words of Wisdom: V," Point Lookout for May 25, 2016.

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? rbrenDbNfTrUWXtiMinnXner@ChacKPhyyvXGpAbeJYFyoCanyon.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:

Answering machine controlsAt the Sound of the Tone, Hang Up
When the phone rings, do you drop whatever you're doing to answer it? Do you interrupt face-to-face conversations with live people to respond to the jerk of your cellular leash? Listen to seemingly endless queues of voicemail messages? Here are some reminders of the choices we sometimes forget we have.
The U.S. Capitol at nightExcuses, Excuses
When a goal remains unaccomplished, we sometimes tell ourselves that we understand why. And sometimes we do. But at other times, we're just fooling ourselves.
The Samuel Morse Telegraph ReceiverRemote Facilitation in Synchronous Contexts: III
Facilitators of synchronous distributed meetings (meetings that occur in real time, via telephone or video) can make life much easier for everyone by taking steps before the meeting starts. Here's Part III of a little catalog of suggestions for remote facilitators.
Admiral Edward Ratcliffe Garth Russell Evans, first Baron Mountevans of ChelseaGuidelines for Delegation
Mastering the art of delegation can increase your productivity, and help to develop the skills of the people you lead or manage. And it makes them better delegators, too. Here are some guidelines for delegation.
A stretch of the Amazon rain forest showing storm damageUnnecessary Boring Work: II
Workplace boredom can result from poor choices by the person who's bored. More often boredom comes from the design of the job itself. Here's Part II of our little catalog of causes of workplace boredom.

See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness and Critical Thinking at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

September 11, 2001 attacks in New York CityComing August 23: Look Where You Aren't Looking
Being blindsided by an adverse event could indicate the event's sudden, unexpected development. It can also indicate a failure to anticipate what could have been reasonably anticipated. How can we improve our ability to prepare for adverse events? Available here and by RSS on August 23.
"The Thinker," by Auguste RodinAnd on August 30: They Just Don't Understand
When we cannot resolve an issue in open debate, we sometimes try to explain the obstinacy of others. The explanations we favor can tell us more about ourselves than they do about others. Available here and by RSS on August 30.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenqbBXIRXVrvbEfXQfner@ChacKFjqCxbAxXOqZDQXoCanyon.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 Race to the South Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers
On 14The Race to the Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough, but to organizational leaders, business analysts, project sponsors, and project managers, the story is fascinating. Lessons abound. Read more about this program. Here are some dates for this program:

Creating High Performance Virtual Teams
Many Creating High Performance Virtual Teamspeople experience virtual teams as awkward, slow, and sometimes frustrating. Even when most team members hail from the same nation or culture, and even when they all speak the same language, geographic dispersion or the presence of employees from multiple enterprises is often enough to exclude all possibility of high performance. The problem is that we lead, manage, and support virtual teams in ways that are too much like the way we lead, manage, and support co-located teams. In this program, Rick Brenner shows you how to change your approach to leading, managing, and supporting virtual teams to achieve high performance using Simons' Four Spans model of high performance. 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.