A Guide to Dysfunctional Management and the Evil Workplace
April 25th, 2014 by William

The Gordian Knot

In 333 B.C. in a kingless kingdom, located in an area that is now modern-day Turkey, there was a length of rope tied into an unbelievably complex knot. It was called the Gordian Knot−named after an ox-cart driving peasant farmer named Gordias. It was quite a complex knot and legend has it that the first person to untie the Gordian knot would be declared the king of the land. A guy named Alexander came along and developed a new set of knot-untying rules. Rather than sticking with traditional knot-untying techniques, Alex whipped out his sword and cut the knot in half, declared the problem solved, added the words “the Great” to his name and took over as king of the land. The story of the Gordian Knot is a perfect metaphor for how to quickly solve what may seem to be an insurmountable issue.

My post of a couple weeks ago, “Hatching a Catastrophe,” detailed why most projects fail. It identified that one of the biggest contributors to project failure was our delusional methods for under-committing (under-estimating) how long each element of a project will actually take. By doing this we delude ourselves into believing we can complete a project in much less time than even our past experience would dictate is possible and despite our past history we will fall for this same scheduling fallacy every time we start a project.

Despite the practice of “under-committing” being a big problem, there’s ironically a flip-side to this issue that we mustn’t forget. That is our tendency to subsequently “over-commit” ourselves to whatever tasks we have in front of us−we take on way more than we can effectively handle. In other words we get tied up in a knot–our own personal Gordian Knot. This is why the buzzword “multitasking” became so prominent in business–we all believe we can do and accomplish more than we really can and, by the way, do them all well to boot. This tendency to over-commit is like blight on many organizations. Breaking this habit is as tough as untying the Gordian Knot and being bound in a Gordian Knot is exactly what it feels like in an organization with chronic over-commitment. Unfortunately solving organizational over-commitment isn’t as easy as Alexander the Great’s solution.

There are many reasons we tend to over-commit. The first is that we erroneously believe that somehow the future will be different than the past, or the present for that matter. According to a study reported by the American Psychological Association, research reveals that people over-commit because they expect to have more time in the future than they have in the present. Thus, when tomorrow turns into today, we discover that we are too busy to do everything we promised. We make the commitments because we believe that something miraculous will change in the future that will free us of the yoke of crap that we tolerate today that keeps them from completing our tasks in the time planned. Of course we never really change anything about how we conduct business thus the “miraculous change” can never happen.

Even if we’re accurate in our estimate of how long a task will take we’ll procrastinate, or get distracted, until we’ve screwed away most of the scheduled time and then end up behind schedule. A two week task started a week late is really a three week task, even though it will only take two weeks to complete.

The main reason for our tendency to chronically over-commit is that we really don’t know our own personal capacity despite the fact it’s really not that hard to measure. We’ve all drank the multitasking Kool-Aid. This is why we all constantly keep accepting more and more work, or estimate a task as taking much less time than it really will, and thus we can’t get anything done on schedule. New projects are started and shoehorned into our already overloaded workload. Again we think the future will be different somehow.

We also do a bad job of prioritization. This is how your day starts: you already have 10 things to do and suddenly someone comes with a high priority project, or problem, that must be done and “only you” can do it. You don’t know how this task really compares in criticality against the 10 other projects you have going since most of them are high priority “hot” projects. In dysfunctional organizations everything eventually becomes “hot” sooner or later−they all become #1 priority. Then you delude yourself into thinking this new task will only take an hour or two and you blindly take it on not realizing that you’ve just fell through the over-commitment rabbit-hole. We all have a hard time saying “no” because we don’t want to be labeled as “not a team player.” Unfortunately that path can be more damaging to your career that saying no occasionally.

As Warren Buffet is credited with saying, “The difference between successful people and very successful people is that very successful people say “no” to almost everything.” Great advice but hard to follow without getting fired.

The scenario above of not knowing the true priority of all the projects and tasks that are on-going exists because most organizations don’t have a master plan–a single point of tracking of all the projects in the organization. Projects are started on many different levels and places in the organization and there’s no coordination between them–many will need the same organizational resources at the same time−a recipe for disaster. Ask management which project takes priority and they’ll give you an idiotic response like; “all our projects are equally important.” Thus people in the organization have a hard time focusing on the right thing at the right time.

Focusing on the right thing at the right time can also be explained by what’s called “The Shiny Object Syndrome.” Shiny Object Syndrome is defined as the attraction to objects that exhibit a glassy, polished, gleaming or otherwise shiny appearance. The term Shiny Object Syndrome was first coined by Todd Defren in 2005, as an affliction that plagues organizations, companies and individuals alike. The problem is that it’s easy to get distracted from the goals and commitments you’ve already made. Rather than seeing things through to completion, you abandon the goals and projects you’ve already started to chase after whatever new thing has just caught your eye.

All of these causes/effects reinforce each other to create a vicious cycle from which most people and organizations can never recover. Task completions start to run late and the list keeps mounting−everything thus becomes “hot” because of its lateness. We then find ourselves having to work extra hours or taking short-cuts to temporarily alleviate the tension points−so we can move onto the next “hot” problem. In the process, we fail to do a thorough and quality job with any task, thus we continuously get caught in the trap of a never-ending cycle that makes it difficult to complete anything on time. With work quality down our personal performance goes down, the business starts to falter, tensions rise and the organization is well on the way to mediocrity. Sound familiar? It’s what the myth of multitasking is all about.

In today’s business environment we hear the buzz-phrase “think outside of the box” preached as the solution to all our problems. Thinking outside the box is really a dangerous practice for management to preach−it encourages people to believe that every problem/task requires a unique solution that hasn’t been discovered yet. The fact is that most problems are solved, and most tasks are competed, using the same old tried and true solutions of which we’re already familiar. And most projects are completed using tried and true solutions. The mantra of thinking outside the box leads us to believe that an upcoming project/task is different than all the rest making us believe that it won’t take as long this time around if we only find that unique, time saving, solution. Somehow the future will be different because we think that reinventing the wheel will free us of all the mundane, extraneous crap we face every day. We all know Einstein’s definition of insanity.

Over-commitment is probably the single malady that affects everyone in an organization−it’s both a personal and organizational Gordian Knot as it ties up so much time that nothing can be accomplished effectively. Remember there’s a fine line between overcommitted and overwhelmed.

The first thing to learn is that while others are trying to figure out exactly what “thinking-outside-of-the-box” really means, you can start by trying to find one little strand of the over-commitment Gordian Knot and unravel it, and then another, and then another−like untangling a string of tangled up Christmas tree lights. First learn to say NO more.

Take any task that you’re facing and think in terms of “is this really important to do right now?” Is there some little piece of this overall mess I can unravel just to get started? You too can pull out your sword and cut the knot, declare the problem solved, and add the words “the Great” to your name because you’ll no longer find yourself over-committed and overworked.

Unfortunately today’s business culture rewards those who are over-committed and overworked−it’s a perverted badge of courage. As Lisa Evans puts it in her Fast Company article “Why You Need to Stop Bragging About How Busy You Are,” “…a work environment where logging in long hours and complaining about not having any time in the day is considered a status symbol and a sign of success.” That’s all the wrong thinking for all the wrong reasons.


2 Responses to “The Gordian Knot”
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  2. Anonymous says

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