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

# The Zebra Effect

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.

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.

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.

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## Related articles

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## Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Coming March 29: Virtual Blowhards
Controlling meeting blowhards is difficult enough in face-to-face meetings, but virtual meetings present next-level problems, because techniques that work face-to-face are unavailable. Here are eight tactics for controlling virtual blowhards. Available here and by RSS on March 29.
And on April 5: Listening to Ramblers
Ramblers are people who can't get to the point. They ramble, they get lost in detail, and listeners can't follow their logic, if there is any. How can you deal with ramblers while maintaining civility and decorum? Available here and by RSS on April 5.

## Coaching services

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## Public seminars

Changing How We Change: The Essence of Agility
Mastery of the ability to adapt to unpredictable and changing circumstances is one way of understanding the success of Agile methodologies for product development. Applying the principles of Change Mastery, we can provide the analogous benefits in a larger arena. By exploring strategies and tactics for enhancing both the resilience and adaptability of projects and portfolios, we show why agile methodologies are so powerful, and how to extend them beyond product development to efforts of all kinds. Read more about this program. Here are some upcoming dates for this program:

Conflict is inherent in collaborative work. When conflict is constructive, it produces better outcomes. When it's destructive, it can be an insurmountable obstacle to success. In this program, we explore the connections between the outcomes of collaboration and conflict in both of its forms. And we emphasize the skills needed most by leaders. The leader's task is to manage conflict so as to ensure that the group achieves its objective with its capacity to collaborate intact, or even enhanced. Rick Brenner shows team leaders and team sponsors the techniques they need to manage team conflict for relationship safety and better outcomes. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Influencing Outcomes Without Authority
Your ability to influence others — whether upward, downward, laterally, or within a team — always depends on both the quality of your relationships with the people you influence, and on your perception and their perception of your personal power. In this program, Rick Brenner shows you the techniques for making things happen not by using formal organizational power, but by using informal, personal power. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Strategies for Leading Teams in Hard Times
When a project team is on task, the contributions of leaders are important, and little noticed. Sometimes the team encounters unexpected difficulty, or requirements change, or budgets are reduced, or any of a number of other things might happen. In these cases, the leader must make or facilitate decisions about how to respond or how to revise the plan. We get through it somehow. Hard times are something else altogether. Despondency, disillusionment, resource shortages, unexpected and severe failure of the plan, and toxic conflict can erode morale. How can leaders deal with such situations? Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Strategies for Technical Debt: A Workshop for Enterprise Leaders
Technical debt is more than mere IT jargon. It's a metaphor that refers to the accumulation of technical artifacts that really ought to be retired, replaced, rewritten, re-implemented, or, if absent, created. We can find technical debt in almost any system, including those that seem to be working well. So what's the problem? The problem is the "interest charges." Systems carrying technical debt are more difficult to maintain, more difficult to extend or enhance, and more difficult to use, than they would be if we "retired" the debt. This engaging and eye-opening program points the way to a path that leads your organization out of technical debt, to make it more adaptable, more transformable, and more agile. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Creating High Performance Virtual Teams
Many people 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 an upcoming date for this program:

The Race to the South Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers
On 14 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's an upcoming date for this program:

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