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Stop Picking The Flysh!t Out Of The Pepper!
By Tom Dennis – President, Effective Engineering
When I was growing up, I got a lot of guidance and knowledge from my
father. I loved him dearly, but what is more I truly valued and respected
him. I also go a lot of great sayings from him, many of which have stayed
with me throughout my life. I’ve found most of them eminently useful to
describe common situations. One of my favorites is, “Stop picking the
flysh!t out of the pepper!”. Not only is it a very colorful and
attention getting expression, it is also illustrative of a common situation
found in many companies and organizations. It is basically another form of
the expression, “You can’t see the forest for the trees”, and means
that you’re concentrating so much on the minutiae that you’re missing, and
not working on, the big picture.
How often have you seen this occur in your organization? You’ve got an
incredibly demanding project underway with tight milestones and schedules.
There are many, many elements to the project, yet you’ve got people who are
spending their valuable time and effort in building the best and most
perfect “mousetrap” in the world, when a perfectly acceptable “mousetrap”
is available that does the job in a fully satisfactory fashion and is
readily available and useable as is. What’s more, the “mousetrap” is
one of the most minor elements of the project and one of the least critical
to the project’s success. Yet try as you might, and despite repeated
requests, demands, and threats, every time you turn around some of these
people are back to polishing their “mousetrap”. These are good
people, but they just can’t see the big picture. They’re picking the
flysh!t out of the pepper!
Here’s another example. You’ve received reports of major problems with
your most popular and best selling product, and more and more customers are
calling in to complain about this problem. It’s time for “all hands on
deck” to find the source of the problem and get the fix back out to the
field as quickly as possible. Your people are able to quickly find the
major root cause of the problem and have a fix identified and ready to go.
However, in the course of identifying the cause, they’ve uncovered another
very minor problem that can occur in very rare circumstances, but they can’t
seem to find a solid fix to this rare problem. They are unwilling to
release the major fix until they fix this rare problem, and customers are
getting quite angry. Again, they’re picking the flysh!t out of the
pepper! They can’t seem to recognize that they need to stop the
bleeding now (triage) and come back later to fix the minor, non-critical
Why do instances of such seemingly bizarre behavior occur? Why would good
people spend so much time on apparent minutiae when they’re fully aware of
the other pressing demands on their time?
► Some people may dig into the minutiae because they are afraid to be wrong,
or that their short-sighted boss will beat on them for having the details
wrong. This case could be the result of a culture where ‘triage’ isn’t an
acceptable answer. Their managers need to be willing to not punish them for
skipping the details of the minutiae when necessary to achieve the big
► For some other people, it may be a need to only do things themselves.
They don’t trust, or are unwilling to accept the work of others. This is
typically part of a “Not Invented Here”, or NIH, syndrome.
► For some others, it may be that working on the minutiae is more fun or is
an escape from the many other problems that surround them.
► Others may simply be unwilling or unable to see or accept the big picture
or to prioritize. They may be overwhelmed by the work required to address
the big picture, and block it out by concentrating on the minutiae. It’s
like someone childishly putting his fingers in his ears and loudly shouting
“I can’t hear you!”
Regardless of the reasons, such behavior is unacceptable.
So how do you address such problems without turning off good and talented
people? Problems like these should be addressed very early in the process
in order to minimize the effort put into such diversionary activities. The
people involved need to be pulled aside to let them know that there are
bigger and higher priority tasks to be addressed and that they shouldn’t
waste their own time and the time of others picking the flysh!t out of
the pepper. Make it clear to them what is most important now and how
the work they need to concentrate on fits in to the big picture.
Help them to understand that the tasks they have begun, while they may be
intellectually interesting or even compelling in a vacuum, are not critical
in the grand scheme of things of what’s most important to the project
underway at this particular point in time. Try to get them to buy in to the
priorities which have been set so that they will not go back to such low
priority tasks on their own.
If they believe that there are compelling reasons why such problems should
be addressed now, give them an opportunity to convince you. If they can,
then reflect this activity in your project plans. However, if they can’t,
then explain clearly to them why such activities cannot be a priority and
that other, more critical tasks must be completed first before any further
work in this area can be contemplated. Make sure they verbally and mentally
accept such decisions, and keep your eyes open to ensure they are following
their commitments to you.
If they do, then your problems are solved and everyone is on track to
concentrate on the most critical priorities. If they don’t, then further,
more intensive, discussions are in order to let them know that such behavior
is unacceptable and must be changed, or their future with the company is in
jeopardy. Be prepared to back up your words with actions.
A good team working together on following the project plan, tackling the
most critical and highest priority tasks, can accomplish tremendous things,
well beyond what the sum of the individuals working independently can
achieve. But one or a few people who concentrate on non-critical minutiae
at the expense of the project can do great damage. They must stop
picking the flysh!t out of the pepper! It is critical for the team,
and critical for the company.
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