Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Stop Picking the Flyshit Out of the Pepper!

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 flyshit 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” (also known as "polishing a turd"). These are good people, but they just can’t see the big picture. They’re picking the flyshit 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 flyshit 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 nuisances.

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 picture.
  • 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 (see Trust Me, I'm Not Like The 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 flyshit 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 (see Pigasus - When Pigs Fly!). 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 flyshit out of the pepper!  It is critical for the team, and critical for the company.

Copyright 2011 Workplace Insanity, All Rights Reserved


  1. Thank you for the article. I found this extrememly helpful in supporting my point of view about the unproductive activity taking place in my company during a critical release upgrade testing project.

    1. To Anonymous,
      Thank you for your kind comments; I'm glad the article helped. I've found that in many, if not most cases, the people concentrating their efforts on the 'flyshit' are not really aware that's what they're doing, and when it is pointed out to them, they finally 'get it', and drop the 'flyshit' to concentrate on the more consequential issues. Recognizing the problem is the first step in correcting it.

      If there is anything I can do to help you with this or other issues you face, please don't hesitate to contact me (see 'Contact' above).

      Thanks - Tom

  2. While sacking groceries in our seven day-a-week grocery store, my dad use to say, You don't put the tomatoes in the bottom of the sac." This became my mantra for customer service over my lifetime. Dads held great wisdom back then. I wonder if our kids will get anything comparable from us?

    1. To Anonymous: Thank you for your comments. I share your concern that great wisdom of parents and family may be lost to future generations, particularly in a world of instant and constant communications that takes us away from really listening listening to and appreciating such wisdom. I think all we can do is to try to pass it on to our families and friends so that they, in their time, can do the same. In some small way, that's actually my intent in these Workplace Insanity blog posts - to pass along gained experiences that may be helpful, and hopefully interesting, to others. I appreciate your comments. Thank you!

      Tom Dennis


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