Don't ignore the chickens

Oct 03 2006 by Wayne Turmel Print This Article

Are you listening to the chickens around you? Are they warning you of danger or letting you know things are okay? Do you even know what chickens to listen to?

These are not (okay, not just) the ravings of a madman. They're legitimate questions I'm asking people I work with on a regular basis, and the future of our company - and yours - depends on the answers.

What's with the chickens? Well there's a story here...

Back in the days of the Roman Empire, armies would carry cages full of sacred chickens. When a decision needed to be made, they'd crumble food at the bottom of the cage. If the chickens ate, it was a good sign. If they didn't, it was a bad omen you ignored at your peril.

This may seem a strange way to make life or death decisions but if you knew how most year-end sales projections were created these days you'd appreciate any system that has objective measurement and at least a 50 per cent success rate attached to it. At least birds either eat or they don't.

Anyway, this is the story of Publius Claudius Pulcher, a young, handsome and headstrong general during the Battle of Drepanum in 249 BCE. He was all set to fight the Carthaginians in a sea battle. They had the numbers, they had the attitude and they were Roman. What could go wrong?

Well, it seems the chickens knew something he didn't. They wouldn't eat - a sign that something was not going to go well. But Pulcher was so sure of himself he threw the chickens into the sea, shouting "Ut biberent, quoniam esse nollent" which roughly translated means: "If they don't want to eat, let them drink". The modern equivalent might be, "What do marketing and engineering know? We're the ones out there with our customers".

Well you can guess what happened. He got his toga handed to him and wound up in disgrace. He was charged with a combination of incompetence, sacrilege and treason and exiled from Rome. Now that's a performance review you can sink your teeth intoÖ.

The point is that whatever the source of the data, there was good reason for caution and the person responsible for making the decision ignored the agreed-upon measurements.

The whole organization knew how the decision should have been made. The chickens either ate or they didn't - and if they wouldn't eat today, you put off the battle until they did.

Imagine the chain of events. Pulcher ignored the omens and attacked. Then the next person in line attacked, assuming that the omens must have been right. If he attacked then the captain of the next ship did the sameÖuntil half the Roman fleet lay at the bottom of the Mediterranean.

Likewise, if one part of your process ignores the numbers and acts, the person next in line will probably respond accordingly until your project also lies at the bottom of the sea.

So what does this have to do with managers today? Well there are a couple of questions worth asking:

  • Do your managers know all the criteria for making important decisions?
  • Do they understand the implications of acting contrary to the agreed-upon indicators?
  • Do the people up and down stream of that manager know how that decision's being made?
  • What happens to the poor second-in-command who says, "Uh, excuse me, Ma'am but that chicken ain't eating, are you sure you want to do thatÖ."?
  • If the decision to go against the indicators is successful, is there an opportunity for your organization to go back and say, "maybe poultry isn't the best indicator of success"?

This last point is critical. It would be nice to think that we've learned something since Roman times, but remember the most important piece of the case against Pulcher was the crime of sacrilege. He got in trouble for ignoring the chickens and disrespecting the gods, not for losing his fleet.

It's possible for organizations to become too dependent on the metrics and punish legitimate risk takers. Disobeying minor rules becomes more important than any positive outcomes or lessons learned. After all, they're just chickens.

Choose your metrics carefully, and then pay attention to them.

So what are the chickens in your organization telling you?

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About The Author

Wayne Turmel
Wayne Turmel

For almost 30 years, Wayne Turmel has been obsessed with how people communicate - or don't - at work. He has spent the last 20 years focused on remote and virtual work, recognized as one of the top 40 Remote Work Experts in the world. Besides writing for Management Issues, he has authored or co-authored 15 books, including The Long-Distance Leader and The Long-Distance Teammate. He is the lead Remote and Hybrid Work subject matter expert for the The Kevin Eikenberry Group. Originally from Canada, he now makes his home in Las Vegas, US.