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The Lawn Mower Syndrome

An ongoing client of mine for many years was a large Fortune 500 industrial products company with a hodgepodge of different divisions, businesses, and functions spread out all over the world. One day, while working on a cost reduction project in one of the smaller divisions, I received a message from one of the division’s senior executives.

The email was marked “URGENT!” in red block letters and tagged with a red flag. The subject read “Board Meeting!” The note went on to ask me and my team to prepare a series of analyses on operating costs, inventory levels, and other items and then to create a set of presentation slides explaining the analyses and the results. And all this was needed in a few days – “must be on my desk by 5pm Friday!!!” was the demand.

Complying with this order was going to require a significant amount of work from the project team – hours and fees that were well above and beyond the scope of what we were working on at the time. We made a quick estimate of the costs, and I went to see the client executive for whom we were working to show her the impact on the project budget and get her approval to proceed.

When we told her about the urgent request (which had come from an executive at least two levels above her), she laughed out loud. “Oh for gosh sakes, everything is urgent around here”, she said. “I will see what this is really about”.

Sure enough, it turned out that the board meeting in question was a month hence, and the slides were intended as “backups” in anticipation of possible questions. Once her superiors saw the cost of the work, they decided they could make do without it.

This is a phenomenon that I have seen many times in many settings. One of my colleagues dubbed it “the lawnmower syndrome”, explaining that it was analogous to what happens on a hot summer day when the neighbor is mowing the lawn with a noisy lawnmower and everyone has to shout to be heard above the din. It is a corollary to the butterfly effect (whereby small issues become major panics), but in this case, it is about rising above the background noise.

This syndrome is frequently evident in everyday life. Just note how many times items in the news or social media are labeled “shocking” or “outrageous” or “drop dead hilarious” to name but a few. You will almost never hear something described as “interesting” or “worthwhile” or “amusing”, and if you do, it will be ignored. I frequently receive letters from my cell phone carrier marked “urgent – critical information inside”. It is always some kind of promotion. I now routinely throw them away unopened without a second thought.

The syndrome has a sinister effect, however, in that as the background noise level escalates, it becomes increasingly difficult to rise above it. Marginal new products that were once hailed as “breakthroughs” are now “game changers”. The monthly letters from my cell phone company are now disguised to look like checks and are marked “time sensitive - open immediately”. Items that are truly urgent or important get ignored, which can have unintended and unfortunate consequences.

When I returned to the industrial products client a year after the above experience, I came to learn that they had created a new category in the email system called “Ultra Urgent” with two purple flags in the subject line. Needless to say, as soon as the project started I received several “Ultra Urgent” missives each day.

That said, it is ultra urgent that you read this game-changing post and all the others immediately and enter comments below. To do anything else would be a shocking and egregious error.

© QuakerSmith Capital, LLC March 2017 All rights reserved

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