Thursday, July 28, 2011

Catching the Fart, Described

In my last post, I described how a marketing tag line comes to have a heartless TM sign on it.

Today, more on catching a fart. Catching a Fart - or CAF - is my term for accepting a to-do item that was tossed into the air in a meeting, but is neither necessary nor ideal as an action item. 

People talk a lot. People ask for things. It's a basic strategy. I can't do what you're asking of me - because you haven't given me the prerequisite. It's a great way of delaying work. Or explaining a failure.

If you're in a meeting, people will often declare these gaps in what they have. These aren't always real. Often, in my experience, people will raise flags about gaps that are actually already filled - but they don't know it. Why? Because it is a defensive strategy. You didn't give me the 5 kill-points for cheddar over provolone! I can't sell cheddar without it!

And then you counter with - "It's been in your inbox for a week, and I blogged it and tweeted it to you."  And then they shut up.

But, if you haven't got it done - there are 3 approaches:

a) If you think it is a reasonable, credible request, you toss it on the list.
b) If it is idiotic, wrong, or already done, you can shut it down.
c) If it seems extraneous or idiotic, you can often just.... let it fall on the floor.

CAF is the act of writing down action items that fall into group C. And then following up on them. And executing. The premise is usually something like .. if we give them what they want, they'll run out of excuses and do the work.  That fails. Anyone who has ever talked to a 10 year old will know that there is a limitless supply of excuses on earth.

So, how do I handle group C?

a) I often give the speaker the action item of emailing me the request - just to ensure I accurately capture it. At least 50% of them never do it - because they don't WANT the request completed. They want the excuse.

b) If it's too stupid, I will often offer to send them everything I have that is peripherally related to their request - and ask them about the gap in the existing materials. You want competitive Cheddar information? Here's attached competitive yellow-cheese information, tips on meltability, and the 5 reasons cheese with holes are evil. What's missing?

c) I simply do not write it down. I conveniently forget. If I hear it again, I'll handle it. Two or 3 datapoints imply a real need.  If I never hear it again, it's gone.

I know people who spend the better part of their careers addressing CAFs. There is neither benefit nor progress from this. In the best case, it is a waste of time. In the worst case, you're doing something that's wrong for the company. Like putting a TM on a warm fuzzy tag line.

1 comment:

Capt. BS said...

I've been a part of organizations that employ CAF as a management strategy. For example: imagine that you're sitting in a meeting on some mundane topic (e.g. what color to plastic-wrap the cheese in for this quarter), when Someone Important happens to mutter something under their breath like, "Yeah, and it would be nice if there were a gold star by our logo, but that's not important and would probably cost a lot," so no one really notices. A month later, the plastic-wrap arrives back from manufacturing two months later, sporting the agreed-upon color... BUT, because there is no gold star by the logo, someone who sat in on that meeting (hopefully not you) gets reamed out by Someone Important, and potentially loses their job on the spot. Consequently, all surviving employees make a mental note that, whenever Someone Important says or suggests ANYTHING that might ever-so-possibly entail an action, they execute against that action.

I shit you not: while working at the aforementioned CAF-loving organization, a coworker (we'll call him Sam) told me a story that began with him attending the weekly management meeting. Amidst the usual discussion concerning the upcoming week's active projects and workshops, the chairman and CEO of the company casually mentioned, as an aisde, "My daughter's getting married this summer... [sigh]... Oh, wouldn't it be nice if, as soon as the priest said, 'I now pronounce you man and wife,' the air was filled with the sound of bells ringing? You know, the big, old-fashioned ones the Soviets make?" [Editor's note: it's very likely that this man was wholly unaware that the Cold War had ended over a decade ago.]

Because of this seemingly innocent and off-hand remark, my colleague Sam spent the next month worrying that, if he weren't able to procure, mount, and ring a chorus of Russian bells at the wedding site by the date of the wedding, he would be fired in a most vicious fashion, and forever blacklisted from holding any kind of reputable job in the greater Boston area. Amazingly -- and I truly am in awe of this -- Sam SOMEHOW successfully pulled this off this seemingly impossible feat, and attempting to re-tell the story of how he managed to do this wouldn't come close to doing it justice. He did this even though it was in no way part of his job description, and had nothing to do with the company's work or strategic objectives. For his efforts, Sam only received a nod and smile from the CEO when the bells rang, along with the fleeting satisfaction that he wasn't going to be fired.

But I guarantee you: by the time the next weekly meeting rolled around, Sam had something new to worry about, and it wasn't something that was asked of him directly.