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

The Zebra Effect

by

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.

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Related articles

More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:

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We spend a lot of time and emotional energy in meetings, much of it engaged in any of dozens of ritualized games. Here's Part II of a little catalog of some of our favorites, and what we could do about them.
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It goes by various names — self-talk, inner dialog, or internal conversation. Because it is so often disorganized and illogical, I like to call it inner babble. But whatever you call it, it's often misleading, distracting, and unhelpful. How can you recognize inner babble?
A cup of coffeeHow to Procrastinate
You probably know many techniques for procrastinating, and use them regularly, but vociferously deny doing so. That's what makes this such a delicate subject that I've been delaying writing this article. Well, those days are over.
A portrait of Matthew Lyon, printer, farmer, soldier, politicianHow to Foresee the Foreseeable: Recognize Haste
When trouble arises after we commit to a course of action, we sometimes feel that the trouble was foreseeable. One technique for foreseeing the foreseeable depends on recognizing haste in the decision-making process.
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When people collaborate on complex projects, the most desirable work tends to go to those with highest status. When people work alone, they tend to spend more time on the parts of the effort they enjoy. In both cases, preferences rule. Preferences can lead us astray.

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A hummingbird feeding on the nectar of a flowerComing October 12: Downscoping Under Pressure: II
We sometimes "downscope" projects to bring them back on budget and schedule when they're headed for overruns. Downscoping doesn't always work. Cognitive biases like the sunk cost effect and confirmation bias can distort decisions about how to downscope. Available here and by RSS on October 12.
An owl of undetermined speciesAnd on October 19: Bullying by Proxy: I
The form of workplace bullying perhaps most often observed involves a bully and a target. Other forms are less obvious. One of these, bullying by proxy, is especially difficult to control, because it so easily evades most anti-bullying policies. Available here and by RSS on October 19.

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