It’s time to talk about prairie chickens and how to cope with them. From the archives, 1996 vintage:

In graduate school, while I monitored electric fish, my friend Henry McDermott watched prairie chickens mate.

For years.

Male prairie chickens congregate in an area the size of a suburban lawn called a “lek.” The highest-status male grabs a territory the size of a kitchen table in the middle. The others array themselves outward from there, in larger but more peripheral chunks of turf, and they all do the prairie chicken dance. Female prairie chickens then wander through the lek, with most mating with the central male. Success declines with distance from the middle. It’s disco among wildfowl.

Biologists erroneously figured the biggest, meanest male owned the middle. Henry discovered something different: over the years, those males who survive drift to the middle. It’s a seniority system.

In the case of real prairie chickens, the senior birds are the ones that managed to not die of disease or be eaten by hawks and owls. But we’re more interested in Prairie Chicken Managers — the ones who, over the course of their careers, have drifted up the organizational chart because they were safe, inoffensive choices.

They’re the ones, that is, who managed to avoid being nailed by the organization’s political predators — something most easily achieved by treating all but the safest and least-controversial decisions as rabid weasels — creatures to be avoided at all costs.

Left to their own devices, Prairie Chicken managers are likeable enough. But they can be frustrating and dangerous if you need them to stick their necks out on your behalf, as when, for example, you find yourself managing a project and Something happens. Because while not all Somethings have an impact on budget, deadlines, scope, or risk, there are plenty that do.

When they do, you need a business sponsor willing to commit to the best course of action and to put his/her name on it. That isn’t in a Prairie Chicken’s nature.

Root Causes: Prairie Chickenism is a two-level affair. At the individual level, Prairie Chickens are what they are because they have both a heightened sense of self-interest, and an approach to personal cost-benefit analysis that emphasizes downside avoidance over upside opportunity.

While they might understand that from the organization’s perspective, playing it safe often isn’t particularly safe, that doesn’t matter as much as their understanding that from their personal perspective, playing it safe is much, much safer.

But that’s just the first-level root cause analysis of Prairie Chickenism. It’s the next level you need to master if you want to deal with these fowl managers effectively: Prairie Chickens are not found in isolation. They flock: When management positions open up, Prairie Chicken managers will generally promote other Prairie Chickens to fill them.

So you aren’t just dealing with a Prairie Chicken. You’re dealing with a Prairie Chicken culture.

Dealing with a Prairie Chicken manager: Well this one’s easy. So long as you don’t do anything to attract the attention of potential organizational predators … so long as you don’t do something your manager might consider risky … you’re in a safe situation from which to build your internal network of potentially helpful interpersonal relationships.

Take advantage of it. Establish the reputation you want among the people you want it with.

Then, when you decide you’ve had enough safety and are ready to try something more adventurous, you’ll know who to call. And, just as important, they’ll be willing to answer when you do.

Living in a Prairie Chicken society: Odds are, though, that if you’re dealing with a Prairie Chicken manager, you won’t be able to build relationships with other managers who aren’t Prairie Chickens, because there aren’t any.

It’s play-it-safe-ism from top to bottom.

What to do?

First and foremost, get it out of your head that there’s anything you can do to fix the situation. Nobody is going to have any interest in any thoughts you might have on the subject, because they already understand the path to success, and it isn’t yours.

Which wouldn’t be all that bad, other than having to live with your daily dose of boredom, except for one sticky little challenge: In the long run, for any business, playing it safe really isn’t safe.

So in the short term take advantage of the situation to build skills that will be attractive in the employment marketplace.

Because the main thing you need to do is plan your escape, because living among Prairie Chickens is a risky business.

Not in the sense of your employment being on shaky ground, because it isn’t.

No, at the risk of violating the metaphor, the risk, when living among Prairie Chickens, is that the syndrome is contagious.

And once you’ve caught a case of Prairie Chickenism, there’s no known cure.

Sometimes, insight arrives a couple of decades later.

I’m referring to George Will and his recent column, “Think you’re living in a ‘hellhole’ today? Try being a billionaire in 1916.” (Washington Post, 5/5/2017) and research he cites from economist Don Boudreaux, who makes points identical to those made here more than twenty years ago (“A holiday card to the industry,” InfoWorld, 12/16/1996).

Beyond my chronic whining about how little I’m appreciated by folks like this is a point about human psychology that has broad applicability in your dealings with everyone you work with in the humdrum world of business. Namely, luxury is comparative, not absolute.

To understand the point, look inward: Given a choice, would you prefer to live John D. Rockefeller’s 1916 lifestyle as Boudreaux describes it, or your own? Even, better, ask the question inside out: Given how much better your life is today than his was back then in so many different ways, why is this even a hard decision?

It’s a hard decision because as Rockefeller, you (or I; I’m hardly immune from the syndrome) would have been the envy of everyone else, while today you’re just another schmuck.

Luxury is comparative, not absolute.

How can you use this insight?

Start with program governance. It’s well established that, as the figure shows, when projects are fewer and fully staffed, they all complete earlier than any project does when project staff are spread thin. Businesses that schedule projects this way receive, not just their first benefits, but all benefits earlier than those that rely on multitasking so as to make progress on more fronts all at once.

Everyone benefits. Even business managers whose pet projects launch last get their benefits earlier than they would if everyone’s projects had been approved to launch at the same time.

And yet, this style of project governance is, in my experience, extraordinarily rare. Why? It’s the Ursine Comparative Velocity Strategy in action: I don’t have to outrun the bear, just you, which is to say, I don’t care if everyone does better. I care that compared to everyone else, I’m not last in line.

Luxury is comparative, not absolute, so if you have any influence over your company’s project governance practices, this insight is the starting point for making them more effective.

Example #2: Much to everyone’s astonishment, Microsoft’s Surface Pro line of detachable computers has, according to my informal surveys, become the top I-don’t-care-if-I-need-it-I-want-it end-user device in corporate America. (In case you’re curious, at the bottom of the list are virtual desktops, where the not-personal computer in front of you only provides the keyboard, mouse, and monitor, with everything else happening on a server in the data center.)

If you’re responsible for end-user provisioning, you’d best remember the point about luxury being comparative: If I hold a high-clout position in the enterprise and I want a Surface Pro, you’d best give me a Surface Book, which I’ve never heard of but which is the Bentley to the Surface Pro’s BMW, which in turn is more luxurious than the MacBook’s Lexus, let alone the virtual desktop’s Dodge Neon.

What’s best for the corporation? What do different types of user actually need to get their jobs done? This only matters for those whose positions don’t entitle them to luxury.

Then there’s the ever-popular help desk. In many enterprises executive perks are part of the landscape — executives expect luxury and you’re in trouble if they don’t get it from you if you’re in a position to deliver it.

CIOs in companies where this is part of executive culture know to include an AEE (automated executive escalation) function in their help desk ACDs. The AEE routes calls from known executive telephone numbers to the most senior analyst available, or, failing that, jumps their call to the front of the ACD queue.

Further, help desk analysis are instructed to always ask AEE callers if they’d like an in-person visit to resolve their issue.

If one of these executives asks the CIO if this is standard operating procedure for the help desk, the CIO explains that it isn’t, but that a small list of executives receives “white glove” treatment because, given their role, downtime has a higher impact than it would for most employees.

Does it really? That doesn’t matter. Telling the exec she’s among the exclusive few — that’s what matters.

And it will matter even more come budget season, when the CIO needs executive support for the proposed IT budget.

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On an entirely different subject, my daughter and webmaster Kimberly Lewis recently posted a nice piece on the business value of 508 compliance. Worth your time. You’ll find it here.