Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 15, Issue 29;   July 22, 2015: Down in the Weeds: I

Down in the Weeds: I

by

When someone says, "I think we're down in the weeds," a common meaning is that we're focusing on inappropriate — and possibly irrelevant — details. How does this happen and what can we do about it?
An A-10 Thunderbolt II over Afghanistan in 2011

An A-10 Thunderbolt II over Afghanistan in 2011. A-10s are the only U.S. aircraft type specifically designed for close air support, which involves flying at low altitudes. In the United States, usage of the term "down in the weeds" in a business context to mean "overly concerned with detail" became common just after the turn of the century, but linguists differ as to its origin. In Air Force slang, to fly at low altitudes is to be "in the weeds," a term that is perhaps better suited to environments more heavily vegetated than Afghanistan. The use of the term in the air combat context traces back at least to 1982, in a piece about the F-4 Phantom that appeared in the July, 1982, issue of Car and Driver. It's likely that the term was in use during the Korean conflict, as suggested in Down in the Weeds: Close Air Support in Korea, by William T. Y'Blood.

U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. William Greer courtesy Wikipedia.

It can happen in our meetings. It can happen in our problem solving sessions. It can happen in our writing. It can happen in our minds. We begin reaching for a high-level goal, we encounter an obstacle, we start working around it, and we come upon another obstacle. We start working around that, and we find yet another obstacle. On it goes, obstacle after obstacle, and before long, we've lost sight of whatever it was we set out to do in the first place. Sometimes, we can't even recall what it was we were actually trying to do, or how we got to wherever we are.

We're down in the weeds.

And when we get down in the weeds, often, we don't even realize we're lost.

In conversation, we can get down in the weeds in less than 10 minutes. In projects, we can do it in less than a week. Or overnight. It can happen to individuals, groups, teams, divisions, companies, and nations. The bigger the entity, and the loftier the goal, the longer it takes to get down in the weeds, but it can happen to any entity, and it's always a tragedy.

What can we do about this?

Understand what the weeds are
The weeds are often identified as details. An item is a "detail" when it's relevant, but it isn't ours to deal with right now, or possibly ever. An item is a "detail" when thinking about it is premature, because the higher-level plan might still change so as to render the item irrelevant.
But not all weeds are details. We could be in the weeds when we're spending effort dealing with matters only remotely connected to our ultimate goal. Or when we're spending effort on items that seem connected to our goal, but when that connection is tenuous because the higher-level plan is still changing.
Notice the weeds a little sooner
It might seem Sometimes, we can't even recall
what it was we were actually
trying to do, or how we
got to wherever we are
that once we know what weeds are, we can avoid them. Not so. Noticing that we've strayed from the primary objective is difficult because our attention tends to fix on the most immediate issues.
Mental discipline can help maintain attention on the objective, in spite of the most insistent weed-like matters. Regular reminders of goals are helpful — every few minutes in a meeting, every week in a project, every month for a business unit, or every quarter for the enterprise.
Two ideas: (1) My screen saver reads: "Are you working on something that really matters?" (2) In meetings, designate someone as a weed detector and give him or her authority to halt the meeting's proceedings whenever the group might be in the weeds.

We'll continue next time with suggestions for avoiding the weeds altogether and for getting out of them as quickly as possible. Next in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Down in the Weeds: II  Next Issue

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? rbrenWrfQoxzXNhGsSHxuner@ChachcqvLHgNkDtclzqJoCanyon.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:

Apollo 13 Shoulder PatchFilms Not About Project Teams: I
Here's part one of a list of films and videos about project teams that weren't necessarily meant to be about project teams. Most are available to borrow from the public library, and all are great fun.
Gemini 7 as seen from Gemini 6Trying to Do It Right the First Time Isn't Always Best
You've probably heard the slogan, "Do it right the first time." It makes sense for some kinds of work, but not for all. For more and more of the work done in modern organizations, doing it right the first time — or even trying to — might be the wrong way to go.
Statue of Hermes with modern headTeamwork Myths: Formation
Much of the conventional wisdom about teams is in the form of over-generalized rules of thumb, or myths. In this first part of our survey of teamwork myths, we examine two myths about forming teams.
Three simple carabinersTeam Risks
Working in teams is necessary in most modern collaborations, but teamwork does carry risks. Here are some risks worth mitigating.
The deadline at Rock Island Prison during the U.S. Civil WarIrrational Deadlines
Some deadlines are so unrealistic that from the outset we know we'll never meet them. Yet we keep setting (and accepting) irrational deadlines. Why does this happen?

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Artist's concept of possible colonies on future mars missionsComing June 28: Tackling Hard Problems: I
Hard problems need not be big problems. Even when they're small, they can halt progress on any project. Here's Part I of an approach to working on hard problems by breaking them down into smaller steps. Available here and by RSS on June 28.
Artist's depiction of a dust storm on Mars with lightningAnd on July 5: Tackling Hard Problems: II
In this Part II of our look at solving hard problems, we continue developing properties of the solution, and look at how we get from the beginning to the end. Available here and by RSS on July 5.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrentfObDsAxnUWqAWqLner@ChacgneQIwXSqvWZiXhWoCanyon.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 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. Here are some upcoming 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 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.