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Volume 11, Issue 26;   June 29, 2011: The Deck Chairs of the Titanic: Strategy

The Deck Chairs of the Titanic: Strategy

by

Much of what we call work is about as effective and relevant as rearranging the deck chairs of the Titanic. We continue our exploration of futile and irrelevant work, this time emphasizing behaviors related to strategy.
Portrait of Benjamin Lincoln (1733-1810), Major General of the Continental Army during the American Revo|-|lu|-|tionary War

Portrait of Benjamin Lincoln (1733-1810), Major General of the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War, and Secretary of War 1781-1783. Painting by Charles Willson Peale. Gen. Lincoln commanded units in Georgia and the Carolinas in 1778-80, during the British southern campaign. Captured at Charleston in 1780, he was ultimately released in an exchange. Commanding a Continental division in the battle of Yorktown, he is the general who formally accepted the British surrender there.

The British Southern Strategy was probably doomed from the start. Conceived as what we now consider a classic counterinsurgency campaign, it was based, in part, on the mistaken belief by the British that the southern colonies were populated by large numbers of Loyalists who could be armed and equipped to form an effective force to oppose the rebels. This belief rested on intelligence gained from Loyalist exiles in London, many of whom had much to gain economically from British victory, and who recognized that exaggeration of the facts would be in their own interest. Still, by 1779, more than a year after the onset of the British southern campaign, the British had ample evidence that the basis of their strategy was at least questionable. Yet they pressed on, rigidly adhering to what was by then a failed — or at least failing — strategy, and ultimately surrendered over 7,000 soldiers at Yorktown in October 19, 1781. More about Gen. Lincoln, More about the British Southern Strategy

The portrait was probably painted during Gen. Lincoln's term as Secretary of War before October 13, 1784. The painting is listed in the 1795 Peale Museum catalog. Purchased by the City of Philadelphia at the 1854 Peale Museum sale. Photo courtesy U.S. National Parks Service Museum.

In the modern workplace, much effort is irrelevant to the goals espoused by the organization — so much, in fact, that exploring the causes of useless work is worthwhile. In this part of our exploration, we focus on examples of deck-chair-rearranging pertaining to strategic decision making. See for a discussion of obvious waste, and for a discussion of task duration.

Insupportably detailed plans
Adequate planning is critical to the success of any complex project, but planning in detail not justified by current knowledge is wasteful. It can even threaten success, because it limits flexibility and closes our minds to alternatives. (More on lock-in) By contrast, "just-in-time" planning, the essence of agile development, tends to preserve flexibility.
Excessively detailed planning can be viewed as scope creep in the planning process; or as a manifestation of perfectionism; or as a result of hoarding of the planning budget or schedule or both. More
Preoccupation with efficiency over effectiveness
In manufacturing, efficiency is effectiveness, but in knowledge work, distinguishing the two is essential. About 30 years ago, management theorists came to recognize that efficiency relates to using resources wisely, given an objective, while effectiveness relates to selecting objectives wisely, given a set of resources.
In knowledge work, emphasizing efficiency over effectiveness risks engaging in deck-chair-rearranging behavior. In meetings, for example, we sometimes debate how to discuss an issue, without considering whether that issue is worth discussing at all.
Impulsively changing strategy
Sometimes we must change strategy — at times, suddenly. When it's appropriate, we call this behavior flexibility. But a pattern of sudden, inappropriate changes is something else: impulsiveness. Impulsiveness can arise along with the urge to hoard, or to expand scope, or to plan in excessive detail.
For example, In knowledge work, emphasizing
efficiency over effectiveness
risks engaging in deck-chair-
rearranging behavior
when a strategy "threatens" to succeed, and deck-chair-rearrangers fear the result of task completion, they can feel an urge to change strategy. Conversely, when things aren't going well, deck-chair-rearrangers can impulsively adopt a new strategy, rather than addressing and learning from the issues that have arisen.
Rigid adherence to failing strategies
Ironically, rigid adherence to failing strategies can also be part of the deck-chair pattern. Rigid adherence can arise when, instead of focusing on organizational goals, we focus on proving that we were right, and that the strategy we adopted can succeed.
Unlike other examples of the deck-chair pattern, rigid adherence to failed strategies is evident even to distant observers. Unfortunately, when they intervene, they usually terminate or reassign a single individual, rather than addressing the deck-chair pattern, which is often systemic.

Although your organization might be free of strategic deck-chair behavior, individuals might still advocate for it, albeit unwittingly. Can you think of anyone you know who might be doing it now? First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: You Might Be Stressed If...  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 about scope creep, see "Ground Level Sources of Scope Creep," Point Lookout for July 18, 2012; "The Perils of Political Praise," Point Lookout for May 19, 2010; "More Indicators of Scopemonging," Point Lookout for August 29, 2007; "Scopemonging: When Scope Creep Is Intentional," Point Lookout for August 22, 2007; "Some Causes of Scope Creep," Point Lookout for September 4, 2002; and "The Deck Chairs of the Titanic: Task Duration," Point Lookout for June 22, 2011.

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Among the most futile and irrelevant actions ever taken in crisis is rearranging the deck chairs of the Titanic, which, of course, never actually happened. But in the workplace, we engage in activities just as futile and irrelevant, often outside our awareness. Recognition is the first step to prevention.
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See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness and Workplace Politics 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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