Decoy Issues vs Real Issues

Aug 29, 2019

Decoy Issues: How Much Time Does Your Company Waste?


People have an amazing ability to avoid talking about things that are staring them in the face. Any time there’s a major organizational failure, we can always go back and find plenty of people who knew about it and didn’t speak up. But even when things are going ok, there are real problems and opportunities, in all of our organizations, that don’t get talked about. Maybe we don’t know what to do about them. Often, it’s because we’re afraid of getting into conflict with colleagues. Usually, nobody wants to take on the risk. So, we have these unspoken agreements, that there are certain issues, we just won’t talk about.

Now people aren’t too comfortable with silence. So, we don’t just talk about nothing instead of talking about the real issues. We talk about other things, that make us seem busy and productive, but aren’t really that important. One term for these topics is “decoy issues.” They look like a duck from a distance, but if you get up close enough you can tell that they’re painted and most of them are hollow.

In our personal lives we call this “polite conversation”. It’s like talking to your estranged relative about how delicious the dinner is and not how they caused a scene at Thanksgiving last year and even Aunt Gladys is still mad at them. Of course, the classic example is talking about the weather. Polite conversation can be useful in social situations. Talking about the weather may be boring, but it doesn’t do any actual harm and it may take the edge off of some awkwardness.

Organizational life is complex, so it’s full of potential decoy issues. We could talk about the conflicting priorities that make it so hard for our teams to collaborate, or we could talk about a new open office plan with shared spaces. It’s related enough to sound like we’re doing something, but it’s not going to fix the real problem. We could talk about what it would take to break into an entirely new market, or we could spend all year trying to find ways to make our pickiest existing customers marginally less unhappy. That’s a great decoy issue, because it’s guaranteed to be time-consuming and it’s tough to argue against increasing customer satisfaction. However, it’s not the path to breakout growth.

Sometimes, it can be hard to tell if something is a real issue or a decoy issue, because we’re all so good at dressing minor stuff up in fancy-sounding words. So, here are a few questions to ask yourself:
Even if we do all this, how much impact will it really have on the business?
Is this really the best use of our time compared to other stuff we should be doing?
If we solved the real problem, would we even care about this?
If the answers, in your private thoughts, are things like “not much” and “not really”, then it’s probably a decoy issue.

Unfortunately, talking about decoy issues at work can be incredibly harmful. For one thing, we’re paying all those people to sit around and talk about things that don’t really matter. Think about all of the projects, taskforces, and standing meetings in your organization. How many of them are focused on decoy issues? Probably some decent percentage. When you consider all the time people spend in meetings in large organizations, that’s a lot of money and time not spent moving the business forward.

That would be bad enough, but then consider that people don’t just sit around discussing abstract ideas in those meetings. They decide on concrete action items and record next steps. They actually commit people to spend more time and more money on tasks related to those decoy issues. At best, all those tasks are a distraction from working on the real opportunities. At worst, they may actually be counterproductive. Too often the actions we take on decoy issues only serve to reinforce and compound the real problem. That starts to get really expensive.

It’s appropriate that the word “decoy” derives from an old word for a cage, because we get trapped when we fall for these decoy issues. Our minds automatically attach importance to things that are familiar. So, if we talk about decoy issues enough, not only will we commit time and resources to them, but we’ll actually start to believe that they are truly important. Eventually everyone around us will start to believe that they are important too. Without much effort, we can end up with significant pieces of our organization working very diligently on things that don’t really matter and don’t move the business forward. And they’ll be convinced that it’s a good use of their collective time.

Harvard Professor, Dean Williams, wrote: “Real leadership gets people to confront reality and change values, habits, practices and priorities in order to deal with the real threat or the real opportunity the people face.”

The more we allow our teams and organizations to spend time talking about and working on decoy issues, the less capacity we’ll have to take on those real problems and opportunities. We’ll spend more time and energy for less and less impact. The only way to truly lead is to engage people in the real issues facing the business.

Otherwise, we might as well just talk about the weather.