Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 11, Issue 26;   June 29, 2011: The Deck Chairs of the <i>Titanic</i>: Strategy

The Deck Chairs of the <i>Titanic</i>: Strategy

by

Much of what we call work is about as effective and relevant as rearranging the deck chairs of the Titanic. We continue our exploration of futile and irrelevant work, this time emphasizing behaviors related to strategy.
Portrait of Benjamin Lincoln (1733-1810), Major General of the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War

Portrait of Benjamin Lincoln (1733-1810), Major General of the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War, and Secretary of War 1781-1783. Painting by Charles Willson Peale. Gen. Lincoln commanded units in Georgia and the Carolinas in 1778-80, during the British southern campaign. Captured at Charleston in 1780, he was ultimately released in an exchange. Commanding a Continental division in the battle of Yorktown, he is the general who formally accepted the British surrender there.

The British Southern Strategy was probably doomed from the start. Conceived as what we now consider a classic counterinsurgency campaign, it was based, in part, on the mistaken belief by the British that the southern colonies were populated by large numbers of Loyalists who could be armed and equipped to form an effective force to oppose the rebels. This belief rested on intelligence gained from Loyalist exiles in London, many of whom had much to gain economically from British victory, and who recognized that exaggeration of the facts would be in their own interest. Still, by 1779, more than a year after the onset of the British southern campaign, the British had ample evidence that the basis of their strategy was at least questionable. Yet they pressed on, rigidly adhering to what was by then a failed — or at least failing — strategy, and ultimately surrendered over 7,000 soldiers at Yorktown in October 19, 1781. More about Gen. Lincoln, More about the British Southern Strategy

The portrait was probably painted during Gen. Lincoln's term as Secretary of War before October 13, 1784. The painting is listed in the 1795 Peale Museum catalog. Purchased by the City of Philadelphia at the 1854 Peale Museum sale. Photo courtesy U.S. National Parks Service Museum.

In the modern workplace, much effort is irrelevant to the goals espoused by the organization — so much, in fact, that exploring the causes of useless work is worthwhile. In this part of our exploration, we focus on examples of deck-chair-rearranging pertaining to strategic decision-making. See for a discussion of obvious waste, and for a discussion of task duration.

Insupportably detailed plans
Adequate planning is critical to the success of any complex project, but planning in detail not justified by current knowledge is wasteful. It can even threaten success, because it limits flexibility and closes our minds to alternatives. (More on lock-in) By contrast, "just-in-time" planning, the essence of agile development, tends to preserve flexibility.
Excessively detailed planning can be viewed as scope creep in the planning process; or as a manifestation of perfectionism; or as a result of hoarding of the planning budget or schedule or both. More
Preoccupation with efficiency over effectiveness
In manufacturing, efficiency is effectiveness, but in knowledge work, distinguishing the two is essential. About 30 years ago, management theorists came to recognize that efficiency relates to using resources wisely, given an objective, while effectiveness relates to selecting objectives wisely, given a set of resources.
In knowledge work, emphasizing efficiency over effectiveness risks engaging in deck-chair-rearranging behavior. In meetings, for example, we sometimes debate how to discuss an issue, without considering whether that issue is worth discussing at all.
Impulsively changing strategy
Sometimes we must change strategy — at times, suddenly. When it's appropriate, we call this behavior flexibility. But a pattern of sudden, inappropriate changes is something else: impulsiveness. Impulsiveness can arise along with the urge to hoard, or to expand scope, or to plan in excessive detail.
For example, In knowledge work, emphasizing
efficiency over effectiveness
risks engaging in deck-chair-
rearranging behavior
when a strategy "threatens" to succeed, and deck-chair-rearrangers fear the result of task completion, they can feel an urge to change strategy. Conversely, when things aren't going well, deck-chair-rearrangers can impulsively adopt a new strategy, rather than addressing and learning from the issues that have arisen.
Rigid adherence to failing strategies
Ironically, rigid adherence to failing strategies can also be part of the deck-chair pattern. Rigid adherence can arise when, instead of focusing on organizational goals, we focus on proving that we were right, and that the strategy we adopted can succeed.
Unlike other examples of the deck-chair pattern, rigid adherence to failed strategies is evident even to distant observers. Unfortunately, when they intervene, they usually terminate or reassign a single individual, rather than addressing the deck-chair pattern, which is often systemic.

Although your organization might be free of strategic deck-chair behavior, individuals might still advocate for it, albeit unwittingly. Can you think of anyone you know who might be doing it now? First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: You Might Be Stressed If...  Next Issue

For more about scope creep, see "Ground Level Sources of Scope Creep," Point Lookout for July 18, 2012; "The Perils of Political Praise," Point Lookout for May 19, 2010; "More Indicators of Scopemonging," Point Lookout for August 29, 2007; "Scopemonging: When Scope Creep Is Intentional," Point Lookout for August 22, 2007; "Some Causes of Scope Creep," Point Lookout for September 4, 2002; and "The Deck Chairs of the Titanic: Task Duration," Point Lookout for June 22, 2011.

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? rbrenCHkmxINNXyDLmajvner@ChaclZvxqIdBzKxLFMdFoCanyon.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:

Abilene, Texas, USATrips to Abilene
When a group decides to take an action that nobody agrees with, but which no one is willing to question, we say that they're taking a trip to Abilene. Here are some tips for noticing and preventing trips to Abilene.
A calm seaAn Emergency Toolkit
You've just had some bad news at work, and you're angry or really upset. Maybe you feel like the target of a vicious insult or the victim of a serious injustice. You have work to do, and you want to respond, but you must first regain your composure. What can you do to calm down and start feeling better?
Suspension cables of the Brooklyn Bridge, which spans the East River between Manhattan and BrooklynDealing with Negative Progress
Many project emergencies are actually the result of setbacks — negative progress. Sometimes these mishaps are unavoidable, but often they're the result of patterns of organizational culture. How can we reduce the incidence of setbacks?
Post-War Lionel TrainsWhen It's Just Not Your Job
Has your job become frustrating because the organization has lost its way? Is circumventing the craziness making you crazy too? How can you recover your perspective despite the situation?
A spider plant, chlorophytum comosum.What Enough to Do Is Like
Most of us have had way too much to do for so long that "too much to do" has become the new normal. We've forgotten what "enough to do" feels like. Here are some reminders.

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Balancing talk time and the value of the contributionComing 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.
kudzu enveloping a Mississippi landscapeAnd 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

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

Changing How We Change: The Essence of Agility
MasteChanging How We Change: The Essence of Agilityry 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 Resolution Skills for Leaders
ConflConflict Resolution Skills for Leadersict 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 Influencing Outcomes Without Authorityability 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 Strategies for Leading Teams in Hard Timesa 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
TechnTechnical Debt Management for Enterprise Leadersical 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 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 an upcoming date for this program:

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's an upcoming date for 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.