Saturday, April 30, 2005

Cognitive Plaque: Sportswriter's
Macha-Do About Nothing  

In all large organizations, there is a cadre of people who get paid a lot but don't work hard. The larger the organization, the more likely it will be to have a bigger percentage of 'em.

Sometimes it's the slacker's fault. He figures if he can find a big enough organization, he can hide, generate just enough product and say plenty of wise-sounding bizspeak homilies, he can get by and polish his golf-game/football-pool/church-fund-raiser/whatever avocation he has. He's human plaque and when he does produce work product, it's usually plaque, too...a showy report that isn't actionable, a beautifully-formatted memo advocating something tangential or even irrelevant.

Sometimes it's the organization's fault. Sometimes protocol demands plaque. Universal reporting at weekly meetings, for example, where every department manager is expected by rule or protocol to say something. High-volume retail counters where they don't ignore pennies. Writing that quarterly report no-one reads and hasn't since Chevrolet made the Nova.

Baseball has some good examples. In baseball, announcers feel like they have lots of space to fill (no Red Barber style announcing anymore...the verbal pause is a declining thing in radio and even television; I almost understand it in radio where management is afraid a person might be station-scanning and think there's no game on, but on TV, where you can see the game, there's no excuse for the logorrhea). Announcers love to tell you portentously Bill "Wagon Tongue" Keister is 1-for-2 lifetime against Phenomenal Smith, so he's batting .500 against him, as though that was meaningful.

Writers generally don't love to fill space meaninglessly, by the way. The mantra in commercial publishing is "real estate is precious" because there needs to be a roughly-fixed ratio between ads and copy. Unless there are a ton of ads to run, editors need to keep the amount of copy under control.

sometimes editors shoot themselves in the footer by building structures that demand plaque. I saw a howler this week, a junk stat that arose, I'm pretty sure, because USA Today demands a certain amount of copy on every team every day to fill a design feature: Team Notes. Each day, they run something for each team, whether there's something of value to say or not. Some poor sod has to come up with something(s) short. Here was Oakland's note from Thursday:

Oakland: The Athletics, perhaps inspired by the Angels' five stolen bases against them Saturday, were 1-for-2 in steal attempts Sunday against Jose Molina. They were 1-for-3 in their first 18 games combined.

This is plaque, meaningless filler the writer probably knew was meaningless filler but the newspaper's format forced her to deliver something.

The one thing we can glean from this junk stat is the Athletics haven't tried to steal much this season. Not big news. Manager Ken Macha's A's last year were last in the league in steal attempts, last in the league in bases stolen and last in the league (which actually makes them the best in the league) at number of times getting caught stealing, and middle of the pack in Net Steals (SB - [2*CS]). The A's have a grand total of one starter or platoon player who is a good base stealer who does it on a regular basis, Eric Byrnes, and this year, he's in a slump so far, getting on base (that is, being in a position to steal a base) at a low .283 OBA rate.

And stealing 1-for-2 bases in a game is the ultimate in exxxxtreme non-news. Two attempts in a game for a team, any team, is ordinary, above the median but completely ho-hum, and being successful 1 time in 2 attempts is about the same, to be expected.

So the writer concatenated an "obvious" (1-for-3 in their first 18 games), a "ho-hum" (1-for-2 in steal attempts), and some unsubstantiated supposition (inspired perhaps by the Angels' five stolen bases").

That filler mentality can be just harmless plaque, but it can also undermine an organization's health. I've found it's most stressful when an organization is going through a re-organization or downsizing or re-engineering. Because the odd thing about American business is when the team sets out to pare costs or kill jobs or processes to preserve cash, plaque is more likely to remain than productive assets...that is, total plaque rarely goes down.

If USA Today suffered a loss of advertising and had to trim their real estate set aside for copy, I'd wager they would cut other editorial before they cut these team notes, a form of work that cries out for plaque.

Why? Because I suspect, they think readers expect to see it. Why? Because it's there and has been for a long time. Why? Because readers expect to see it.

The four-year old's incessant questioning of "why" not only is the shortest path to describing how some plaque has come about, it can also be, in an organization capable of being healthy, a path to opening up people's eyes to the behavioural plaque. Like water to a fish, it usually becomes invisible, just part of the environment. Pressuring someone tell you why may help them to see why it's unnecessary (or explain to you why it actually is useful).

In your workplace, hunt out the plaque. Ask "why?" and keep asking nicely until someone tells you.

Plaque, human or cognitive or behavioural, can almost never help an organization, but it will always slow it down and rob it of at least a little strength.

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