Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 15, Issue 29;   July 22, 2015:

Down in the Weeds: I

by

When someone says, "I think we're down in the weeds," a common meaning is that we're focusing on inappropriate — and possibly irrelevant — details. How does this happen and what can we do about it?
An A-10 Thunderbolt II over Afghanistan in 2011

An A-10 Thunderbolt II over Afghanistan in 2011. A-10s are the only U.S. aircraft type specifically designed for close air support, which involves flying at low altitudes. In the United States, usage of the term "down in the weeds" in a business context to mean "overly concerned with detail" became common just after the turn of the century, but linguists differ as to its origin. In Air Force slang, to fly at low altitudes is to be "in the weeds," a term that is perhaps better suited to environments more heavily vegetated than Afghanistan. The use of the term in the air combat context traces back at least to 1982, in a piece about the F-4 Phantom that appeared in the July, 1982, issue of Car and Driver. It's likely that the term was in use during the Korean conflict, as suggested in Down in the Weeds: Close Air Support in Korea, by William T. Y'Blood.

U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. William Greer courtesy Wikipedia.

It can happen in our meetings. It can happen in our problem solving sessions. It can happen in our writing. It can happen in our minds. We begin reaching for a high-level goal, we encounter an obstacle, we start working around it, and we come upon another obstacle. We start working around that, and we find yet another obstacle. On it goes, obstacle after obstacle, and before long, we've lost sight of whatever it was we set out to do in the first place. Sometimes, we can't even recall what it was we were actually trying to do, or how we got to wherever we are.

We're down in the weeds.

And when we get down in the weeds, often, we don't even realize we're lost.

In conversation, we can get down in the weeds in less than 10 minutes. In projects, we can do it in less than a week. Or overnight. It can happen to individuals, groups, teams, divisions, companies, and nations. The bigger the entity, and the loftier the goal, the longer it takes to get down in the weeds, but it can happen to any entity, and it's always a tragedy.

What can we do about this?

Understand what the weeds are
The weeds are often identified as details. An item is a "detail" when it's relevant, but it isn't ours to deal with right now, or possibly ever. An item is a "detail" when thinking about it is premature, because the higher-level plan might still change so as to render the item irrelevant.
But not all weeds are details. We could be in the weeds when we're spending effort dealing with matters only remotely connected to our ultimate goal. Or when we're spending effort on items that seem connected to our goal, but when that connection is tenuous because the higher-level plan is still changing.
Notice the weeds a little sooner
It might seem Sometimes, we can't even recall
what it was we were actually
trying to do, or how we
got to wherever we are
that once we know what weeds are, we can avoid them. Not so. Noticing that we've strayed from the primary objective is difficult because our attention tends to fix on the most immediate issues.
Mental discipline can help maintain attention on the objective, in spite of the most insistent weed-like matters. Regular reminders of goals are helpful — every few minutes in a meeting, every week in a project, every month for a business unit, or every quarter for the enterprise.
Two ideas: (1) My screen saver reads: "Are you working on something that really matters?" (2) In meetings, designate someone as a weed detector and give him or her authority to halt the meeting's proceedings whenever the group might be in the weeds.

We'll continue next time with suggestions for avoiding the weeds altogether and for getting out of them as quickly as possible.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Down in the Weeds: II  Next Issue

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