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

The Zebra Effect

by

Last updated: August 8, 2018

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.
A zebra

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. Go to top Top  Next issue: The Tweaking CC  Next Issue

Rick BrennerThe article you've been reading is an archived issue of Point Lookout, my weekly newsletter. I've been publishing it since January, 2001, free to all subscribers, over the Web, and via RSS. You can help keep it free by donating either as an individual or as an organization. You'll receive in return my sincere thanks — and the comfort of knowing that you've helped to propagate insights and perspectives that can help make our workplaces a little more human-friendly. More

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.

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.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:

Out of the actionThe Shape of the Table
Not only was the meeting running over, but it now seemed that the entire far end of the table was having its own meeting. Why are some meetings like this?
FightingDangerous Phrases
I recently upgraded my email program to a new version that "monitors messages for offensive text." It hasn't worked out well. But the whole affair got me to think about everyday phrases that do tend to set people off. Here's a little catalog.
Detour SignHow We Avoid Making Decisions
When an important item remains on our To-Do list for a long time, it's possible that we've found ways to avoid facing it. Some of the ways we do this are so clever that we may be unaware of them. Here's a collection of techniques we use to avoid engaging difficult problems.
An appealing plate of pasta (not what I ate that evening)If Only I Had Known: I
Have you ever regretted saying something that you wouldn't have said if only you had known just one more little fact? Yeah, me too. We all have. Here are some tips for dealing with this sticky situation.
U.S. Unemployment Rate in percentFinding Work in Tough Times: Strategy
If you're out of work and discouraged — or getting there — you're in great company. Better than ever before. Getting back to work starts with getting to work on finding work. Here's a collection of strategies for the job of finding work.

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A dog playing catch with a discComing August 28: Playing at Work
Eight hours a day — usually more — of meetings, phone calls, reading and writing email and text messages, briefing others or being briefed, is enough to drive anyone around the bend. To re-energize, to clarify one's perspective, and to restore creative capacity, play is essential. Play at work, I mean. Available here and by RSS on August 28.
An engineer attending a meeting with 14 other peopleAnd on September 4: How Messages Get Mixed
Although most authors of mixed messages don't intend to be confusing, message mixing does happen. One of the most fascinating mixing mechanisms occurs in the mind of the recipient of the message. Available here and by RSS on September 4.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, 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: Lessons in Leadership
On 14The Race to the South Pole: Lessons in Leadership 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. We'll use the history of this event to explore lessons in leadership and its application to organizational efforts. A fascinating and refreshing look at leadership from the vantage point of history. 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 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.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around.
Reader Comments About My Newsletter
A sampling:
  • Your stuff is brilliant! Thank you!
  • You and Scott Adams both secretly work here, right?
  • I really enjoy my weekly newsletters. I appreciate the quick read.
  • A sort of Dr. Phil for Management!
  • …extremely accurate, inspiring and applicable to day-to-day … invaluable.
  • More
101 Tips for Managing ConflictFed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you the target of a bully? Learn how to make peace with conflict.
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.
Comprehensive collection of all e-books and e-bookletsSave a bundle and even more important save time! Order the Combo Package and download all ebooks and tips books at once.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!