To "rearrange the deck chairs of the Titanic" is a metaphor commonly used to describe futile, irrelevant actions taken in times of crisis. It refers to the passenger liner that sank in 1912 after grazing an iceberg in the North Atlantic. Rearranging its deck chairs after the collision would have been futile and irrelevant, if not tragically comical.
The behavior pattern this metaphor suggests is astonishingly common in organizations — astonishing because so much of the work we do is irrelevant to the goals our organizations espouse. These first examples of manifestations of deck-chair behavior emphasize obvious waste.
- Attention to deflective activities
- Deflective activities are those that we don't need to do right now, and maybe don't ever need to be done. But we apply resources and people to them anyway. Some of those working on deflective activities sense that their efforts are wasted, but they're either afraid to mention this to management, or they've tried already, to no avail. In the worst case, the people working on deflective activities are management.
- The truly dangerous deflective activities have no end date and no definite objective. Sometimes their costs aren't tracked at all, which enhances their life expectancy.
- Preoccupation with unimportant details
- Once in a while, even those who are determined to spend their time rearranging the deck chairs have to work on relevant tasks. But when they do, they tend to invert priorities, occupying themselves with unimportant details.
- Examples include preparing beautiful graphics for presentations that have only internal audiences, perfecting the layout of a Web page that's useless or worse because it has outdated or incorrect information, or having meeting after meeting about the color scheme of the third floor while failing to address the facility-wide overcrowding problem.
- Cluttering the agenda with low-priority items
- In the case of meetings, one very damaging example of priority inversion is agenda cluttering. Agenda clutter is the polyglot collection of low-priority or routine items that fully consume the time of the meeting and the energy of the people In the worst case, the people
working on deflective activities
are managementattending, long before they get down to the important issues.
- Sometimes this happens because of rigid adherence to rules, such as "no item shall remain unaddressed for longer than 10 days." Rules such as these force unimportant items to the top of the agenda ahead of issues far more serious. Agenda cluttering can also happen because of an unspoken agreement not to address the difficult issues. By mucking about in the agenda clutter, we can avoid addressing the difficult questions.
Are 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 welcomeWould you like to see your comments posted here? rbrengTUAmvHBdPtPnXxzner@ChacPRajdYamyjbjfrasoCanyon.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.
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.
More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:
- Personal Trade Secrets
- Do you have some little secret tricks you use that make you and your team more effective? Do you wish
you could know what secret tricks others have? Here's a way to share your secrets without risk.
- Mitigating Outsourcing Risks: II
- Outsourcing internal processes exposes the organization to a special class of risks that are peculiar
to the outsourcing relationship. Here is Part II of a discussion of what some of those risks are and
what can we do about them.
- Tangled Thread Troubles
- Even when we use a facilitator to manage a discussion, managing a queue for contributors can sometimes
lead to problems. Here's a little catalog of those difficulties.
- Business Fads and Their Value
- Fads in business come and go, like fads anywhere. In business, though, their effects can be so expensive
that they threaten the enterprise. Still, the ideas and methods that become fads can have intrinsic
value. Where does that value come from? Where does it go?
- The Utility Pole Anti-Pattern: I
- Organizational processes can get so complicated that nobody actually knows how they work. If getting
something done takes too long, the organization can't lead its markets, or even catch up to the leaders.
Why does this happen?
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming June 19: I Don't Understand: II
- Unclear, incomplete, or ambiguous statements are problematic, in part, because we need to seek clarification. How can we do that without seeming to be hostile, threatening, or disrespectful? Available here and by RSS on June 19.
- And on June 26: Appearance Antipatterns: I
- Appearances can be deceiving. Just as we can misinterpret the actions and motivations of others, others can misinterpret our own actions and motivations. But we can take steps to limit these effects. Available here and by RSS on June 26.
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrengTUAmvHBdPtPnXxzner@ChacPRajdYamyjbjfrasoCanyon.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:
- Get 2001-2 in Geese Don't Land on Twigs (PDF, USD 11.95)
- Get 2003-4 in Why Dogs Wag (PDF, USD 11.95)
- Get 2005-6 in Loopy Things We Do (PDF, USD 11.95)
- Get 2007-8 in Things We Believe That Maybe Aren't So True (PDF, USD 11.95)
- Get 2009-10 in The Questions Not Asked (PDF, USD 11.95)
- Get all of the first twelve years (2001-2012) in The Collected Issues of Point Lookout (PDF, USD 28.99)
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
- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
- Many people 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.