To Kill a Woodpecker

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I attended a talk conducted by an IT leader recently. He is a funny guy. I would describe him as a witty old veteran with a bagful of stories up his sleeve. Hearing him speak was like enjoying a folktale told by an old wise man in the corner of an old Irish pub. He basically treated the audience with a feast of unusual juicy stories that were both entertaining and enlightening. One of those stories resonated with a thought that I have been struggling with lately and sparked a series of frenzy ideas that had kept me busy musing for the rest of the day. What he had actually shared with us was an uncommon method to kill a woodpecker.

What? Killing a flicker?

Don’t get me wrong. Before you start calling up the American Bird Conservancy (ABC), I would like to assure you that I am not an ornithophobe. According to the IT leader, the easiest way to kill a woodpecker is to use an air horn. Those who have watched a woodpecker drumming and hammering a tree would agree that it takes a lot of concentration to achieve the precise, rapid and repeated blows. The sound from the air horn seems to be able to distract the woodpecker causing it to land its bill in an improper position thereby breaking its neck. Now you get it. As you can see, it is very important for us to stay focused on the things we do. Everybody knows the danger of talking over the phone while driving. We love multitasking. However, losing focus could be fatal sometimes.

“Project management is like juggling three balls – time, cost and quality. Program management is like a troupe of circus performers standing in a circle, each juggling-three balls and swapping balls from time to time.” G. Reiss once said.

As a project manager, quite often we have to manage several projects at the same time just like the juggler in the circus. Like it or not, this is how we should be making full use of our time efficiently. However, if we are not careful, we may lose our focus and end up with a broken neck like the woodpecker. So, should we just stick to only one project at all times so that we can keep the focus level high? Unfortunately, this is realistically not possible; we all know that.

First of all, people get bored easily and when that happens, they lose their focus. We are well-aware that boredom is one of the main causes for most long-haul truck accidents. Psychological scientist John Eastwood of York University (Ontario, Canada) and colleagues at the University of Guelph and the University of Waterloo define boredom as “an aversive state of wanting, but being unable, to engage in satisfying activity,” which arises from failures in one of the brain’s attention networks. In other words, monotony breeds boredom. The irony is that the more we try to focus on just one project alone, the more likely we will lose our focus due to monotony. It seems like rotating from one project to another occasionally might not be a bad idea after all.

Although staying focused helps us to block off unwanted noises and distractions, there is an undesirable consequence to it. Focused attention makes us oblivious to things happening in the environment around us. For example, most of us should be familiar with this experience where we are so engrossed in the book in hands, totally unaware of someone entering the room, until the person suddenly stands in front of us and gives us a shock. Everyday experiences like this are examples that show that when we are focused, we tend to miss out something that might otherwise be glaringly obvious. Psychologists Daniel J. Simons and Christopher F. Chabris have further demonstrated this in the famous Invisible Gorillaexperiment to study a psychological phenomenon that they called ‘Change Blindness’. Likewise, once we get too focused on and absorbed by a single project, we may miss out important details and warning signs from other projects.

Now, here is the real dilemma. We have learned that Woody needs full undisturbed concentration to do his wood-pecking work. However, by doing so, he loses vigilance on the environment surrounding him. Woody will not be aware of any imminent danger or threat. Had Woody been alert enough to spot the air horn, he would have paused for a while and avoided the fate of a broken neck. To focus, or not to focus, that is the question.

Posted on: December 24, 2012 12:51 AM | Permalink

Comments (4)

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I LOVE your blog post! Beautifully written.

For some of us with short attention span, the choice to focus or not to focus is not necessarily a question. The smallest sound would distract me from drilling wholes, so at the risk of breaking my neck with every move, I drill a little lighter. Guess what? It might take a little longer, but I still get there. All it takes is a little perseverance...even if it is unfocused. In fact, those with attention problems have learned to use this supposive weakness to our advantage. We can kind of keep an eye on several things at once. :-)

Another way to look at this is that projects are completed by teams, so yes, there are times were we need our resources to totally focus and drill down on the matter at hand, but isn''t our job as project managers or sponsors to remove the distractions or obstacles when needed. Speaking of distractions, I better get back to work!


A very nicely written article, thank you, and quite thought provoking.

To me, it is the age old problem of extreme behaviour of any sort being unhealthy. You explained very clearly the dangers of being 100% focused on the small picture all the time (Woody's broken neck is a perfect example), and we all know that having no focus will lead to nothing getting achieved.

So really, as always, the answer lies somewhere in the middle. As Michelle stated, there are times in a project when absolute focus is essential to get past a deadline, or resolve a sticky issue. I can't think of an example of when 0% focus would be helpful, but there are certainly occasions when looking to the horizon is more beneficial than continuing to drill heavily.

I guess the balancing act of knowing when to drill and when to look further afield is part of the art of good Project Management. One of the so-called "soft skills" that are very hard to teach, but require experience.

Very good post.

We all know that the ability to focus is critical to success. I would just caution a crucial aspect of this is learning to focus on the right things, especially in project management. All too often, it is easy to focus on the wrong things because those are what we are most comfortable with doing, sort of like focusing on the trees when our focus should be on the forest, as it would behoove the woodpecker to do.

Beatiful article Koo. One can see it''s not only true for project managers but also for companies who are over focussed on annual variable pay and lose their focus on long term or strategic projects. What you need is right mix of when to look from 30K feet and when to look at the ground.

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