Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 10, Issue 28;   July 14, 2010:

Wacky Words of Wisdom

by

Words of wisdom are so often helpful that many of them have solidified into easily remembered capsules. We do tend to over-generalize them, though, and when we do, trouble follows. Here are a few of the more dangerous ones.
A dwarf apple tree typical of modern commercial varieties

Gennaro Fazio, director of the apple rootstock (ARS) breeding project of the ARS Plant Genetic Resources Unit, Geneva, New York, evaluating trees. The tree he's examining is smaller and more productive than the one behind him, and represents a good candidate for high-density orchards being planted today. The term low-hanging fruit is rapidly becoming an anachronistic metaphor, because modern agricultural practices are achieving higher yields, from earlier-fruiting trees, by using miniature varieties in which all fruit is low-hanging fruit. Photo by Peggy Greb courtesy U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Words of wisdom usually are short, pithy sentences so sensible that we accept them unquestioningly. An example from George Santayana: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." But unquestioning acceptance can be a serious mistake. Here are some common ideas worth at least a pause for thought.

It took a long time for this crisis to develop, and it will take a long time to resolve it.
This statement's symmetry is appealing, and it's often true, but it lacks logic. The processes that led to crisis often differ from those that resolve it.
Crisis resolution happens on time scales compatible with the means employed, rather than the time scales of the forces that created the crisis. The two time scales rarely bear any relation to one another.
Yes, that approach did work on that problem. But this problem is different, so we have to use a different approach.
There isn't much solid reasoning here. For instance, if we must transport someone to a hospital for treatment following a fall, the means of transportation can be the same for a broken left collarbone as for a broken right collarbone. Two different problems, but one approach works for both.
Similar solutions can sometimes work on dramatically different problems. It can be foolhardy to discard candidate solutions simply because they worked on problems markedly different from the problem at hand.
We'll get out of this mess faster if we first understand how we got into it.
If the effectiveness Unquestioning acceptance
of an elegantly crafted
aphorism can be
a serious mistake
of a candidate solution depends on the genesis of the mess, this idea might help. But in many difficult problems, the forces that created a problem become irrelevant once the problem has taken hold. Those forces can differ from the forces that maintain the problem, and from the forces that propagate it.
Before investing in costly efforts to determine underlying causes, understand how the information you seek will actually be useful.
Pick the low-hanging fruit first
In wide use throughout the English-speaking business community, this metaphorical reference to fruit picking suggests that low-hanging fruit is appealing because it's so easily picked. But this metaphor, like many others, is misleading. Although low-hanging fruit is more easily picked, it's often inferior in quality, because it tends to have been picked over fairly thoroughly by other pickers. It often lacks sugar content and ripens later than "high-hanging" fruit because it receives much less sunlight.
Fruit that's a little more difficult to pick might actually yield a higher return on effort expended. So it is with real-world problems.

Words of wisdom might well apply to the situations their authors had in mind. Beyond those situations, knowing when to apply another's wisdom — and when not to — requires wisdom of your own.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Why Don't They Believe Me?  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!

For more examples, see "Wacky Words of Wisdom: II," Point Lookout for June 6, 2012, "Wacky Words of Wisdom: III," Point Lookout for July 11, 2012, "Wacky Words of Wisdom: IV," Point Lookout for August 5, 2015, "Wacky Words of Wisdom: V," Point Lookout for May 25, 2016, and "Wacky Words of Wisdom: VI," Point Lookout for November 28, 2018.

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenXEiRBfuFHUtjHrqUner@ChacpYPvvSVhUNIOeXHKoCanyon.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:

Bottleneck road signWhen Your Boss Is a Micromanager
If your boss is a micromanager, your life can be a seemingly endless misery of humiliation and frustration. Changing your boss is one possible solution, but it's unlikely to succeed. What you can do is change the way you experience the micromanagement.
A bobsled teamTeam Thrills
Occasionally we have the experience of belonging to a great team. Thrilling as it is, the experience is rare. How can we make it happen more often?
Thumbs downRecalcitrant Collaborators
Much of the work we do happens outside the context of a team. We collaborate with people in other departments, other divisions, and other companies. When these collaborators are reluctant, resistive, or recalcitrant, what can we do?
Albert Einstein playing his violin on his 50th birthday in 1929The Perils of Piecemeal Analysis: Content
A team member proposes a solution to the latest show-stopping near-disaster. After extended discussion, the team decides whether or not to pursue the idea. It's a costly approach, because too often it leads us to reject unnecessarily some perfectly sound proposals, and to accept others we shouldn't have.
Deputy Secretary of Defense Wolfowitz, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, and President Bush in a press conference on September 17, 2001Overconfidence at Work
Confidence in our judgments and ourselves is essential to success. Confidence misplaced — overconfidence — leads to trouble and failure. Understanding the causes and consequences of overconfidence can be most useful.

See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness and Critical Thinking at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A beach at sunsetComing August 4: What Are the Chances: I
When estimating the probabilities of success of different strategies, we must often estimate the probability of multiple events occurring. People make a common mistake when forming such estimates. They assume that events are independent when they are not. Available here and by RSS on August 4.
Main Reading Room of the U.S. Library of CongressAnd on August 11: Many "Stupid" Questions Aren't
Occasionally someone asks a question that causes us to think, "Now that's a stupid question." Rarely is that assessment correct. Knowing what alternative assessments are possible can help us respond more effectively in the moment. Available here and by RSS on August 11.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenXEiRBfuFHUtjHrqUner@ChacpYPvvSVhUNIOeXHKoCanyon.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 500-1000 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.

Bullet Points: Mastery or Madness?

DecisBullet Point Madnession makers in modern organizations commonly demand briefings in the form of bullet points or a series of series of bullet points. But this form of presentation has limited value for complex decisions. We need something more. We actually need to think. Briefers who combine the bullet-point format with a variety of persuasion techniques can mislead decision makers, guiding them into making poor decisions. 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!
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.
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!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.