Friday, July 29, 2011

The Chicken Little Syndrome

“The sky is falling, the sky is falling!”  Ah, the overreaction, the storm that breaks up the calm, or the person who is just trying to get noticed.  Whatever the cause, the Chicken Little Syndrome (CLS) can hurt your credibility as well as cause disruption and productivity loss for the organization.  What is the Chicken Little Syndrome?  This is taking a small fact or occurrence and blowing it out of proportion so that it becomes the center of attention to executives.  Many times the motivation behind it seems pure.  However, it also can be truly dangerous.

In my seminars and lectures, I always talk about “getting to the data.”  If I have more data than you and can speak intelligently about the data, then I have a higher chance of winning a conflict.  Just like anything else, data can be manipulated and misused.  Look at the poor egg.  I don’t know if they are good or bad for you anymore.  It seems every month a new study is released that states and proves the exact opposite of the study before that one.  It is a mystery!  So data can literally become the great chicken and egg debate……Squirrel! (That was for those loyal followers from my seminars ;)

Back to Chicken Little, Wikipedia states, “The Merriam-Webster Dictionary records the first application of the name Chicken Little to 'one who warns of or predicts calamity, especially without justification’ as dating from 1895.”  So the Chicken Little Syndrome is someone who takes a small fact, issue, or data point and uses it to warn of impending doom without understanding what the data point really is.  I see the syndrome almost on a weekly basis and sometimes more often than that.  When it really can become fun is if the data points are theoretical.  For example, take estimations of a work effort.  The first key word is “estimate.”  This word alone implies a guess.  There are tons of theories on how to do estimates.  My favorite estimation theory is PERT or Program Evaluation and Review Technique which was started in 1957 by the US Navy.  You can read more about PERT here.  At the end of the day and regardless of the theory, it is still an estimate.  What is great about an estimate is regardless of how much time and effort you put into the models, it will always be an imperfect value.  Whenever there are imperfections or data points that are open to widening levels of interpretation, the Chicken Little Syndrome can rear its ugly head.

Personally, I always feel that there is something behind the Chicken Little Syndrome.   Something else that may not be right on the surface, but it is the true issue of the prediction of doom.  For example, a consultant is working with an organization to build a work estimation model.  He or she works with client for an extended amount of time and designs an extremely comprehensive model that is +/- 7% accurate.  The model is accurate, but also requires the end user to track large amounts of different data points to help feed back into the work model.  A second consultant comes in and looks at the model and suggests a different way.  The different way is +/- 10% accurate but greatly reduces the amount of time the end user spends capturing the data.  The core team chooses the easier model and accepts the additional 3% of inaccuracy as an acceptable risk.  The first consultant feels strongly that the way it was designed originally is the best way.  To disprove the second consultant, CLS takes over.  The second consultant creates a specific case of where the model that was originally created is much better than the model in play.  This turns in to charts, graphs, and presentations stating that the sky is about to fall.  This grabs the attention of the executives which just finished a hefty investment in creating a system around the second model.  Doubt, worry, and panic sets in.  Meetings, conference calls, and many side conversations are generated based on the CLS.  This causes the second consultant to come in and defend the model that he or she created.  Instead of working in the existing system and focusing on the use of that tool, time is spent debating and validating models.  It becomes a war of presentations.  CLS has taken over the center stage and hours and hours of time are spent trying to prove that the sky is fully intact.  In the end, the first consultant was potentially only looking for validation.  There was time and effort and a great amount of good work placed into the model.  No model was truly right or wrong, they both had advantages and disadvantages.  However, because of the CLS, the organization is forced to choose.  Since the organization had to choose, this means someone won and someone lost an argument.  This is a dramatization, but a great example of what CLS is.

Another form of CLS is also called “blamestorming” or “issue deflection.”  Essentially, this occurs when there is an issue that someone causes or a major mistake is made on a project.  Instead of confessing to the issue or admitting fault, the person contracts the Chicken Little Syndrome.  The person launches into a meeting and creates a great hubbub about something in the complete opposite direction of the issue that he or she had caused.  Maybe a grandiose statement is made.  Sometimes it is just a downright lie.  Regardless of what is said, the intention of saying it is to create a commotion and take the attention off of them and place it elsewhere with the hopes that the original issue will be resolved or go away.  This just creates distraction and ultimately hurts the organizations, relationships, and often people.

I have also seen forms of CLS where the person sees everything as a personal battle.  It is as if the whole company is conspiring to interrupt the individual’s workflow.  These are the ones that every conversation is them discussing how they gave an ultimatum, or had to stop someone from destroying life as we know it.  Each story consists of what an idiot everyone else is and how they alone saved the day.  Usually, it is about everything in their lives.  Work, relationships, fights with the mailman, how the cable company is personally trying to rip them off, etc.  It is a defensive and hurtful posture.

Is there an antidote for CLS?  I am not sure.  It can be combatted in a couple of ways.  First, be savvy to what is really happening.  See if you can identify and work with the person that appears to have CLS and see if you can determine the root cause.  Make sure that they do not see the issue as a battle.  The other way to combat it is to call the behavior out for what it is.  Ask for the motivations.  Ask why they feel so strongly about their statements.  See if you can get them to discuss openly what is really happening.  A great technique to do this is the “5 why” technique.  This technique is a way to help try to identify the cause/effect relationship of an issue.  You can read more about that here.

If you feel like you are about to expose the next grand conspiracy or are trying to deflect blame or a mistake off of you, take a step back.  Are you creating a bigger issue than what it really is?  Could there be alternative solutions?  Is it possible the data you are referencing is not correct?  Make sure you are being objective before you raise such a large issue.  If I asked you to name someone that contracts CLS often, most of you reading this can come up with a name almost immediately.  Sometimes, these people just want to be appreciated for doing a good job.  Sometimes it is their insecurities.  Whatever the cause, nine times out of ten, there is a cause.  Find it and you too can stop this horrible disease.

No day but today!


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