Need Help with a Phrase


I'm writing the project management book. I'm noting that sometimes PMs (and teams) perform activities that have no lasting useful effect on the project. One example is doing estimation with feedback. If you estimate but never check reality against those estimates, that's an example of “mental masturbation: it feels good but there's no lasting effect.” That's fine for a rough draft book, but it feels not quite right in a final manuscript. I'm afraid it sounds a bit blaming. (No, I'm nowhere near final manuscript.)

Got any ideas? My editor suggested Soduku (a mental exercise that has no lasting effect). That doesn't quite fit for me either. I'm thinking of calling these activities “thought exercises” as opposed to “moving-the-project-forward activities” but I don't really like that either.

If you have any ideas, I'd love to hear them. And of course I will acknowledge you if I use your phrase in the book. If you like the phrase mental masturbation, let me know that too.

Update of Sept 21, 2006: Wow, thank you all. You've given me lots of ideas to consider. If you still have ideas, please leave them in comments or send me email. Thank you.

29 Replies to “Need Help with a Phrase”

  1. What came to my mind, almost immediately, was a weather person’s ‘weather report’: You can say just about anything, nobody believes you, and you are not held accountable for your forecast.
    Some days this looks very attractive!

  2. I will now play devil’s advocate:
    I read a study last year about weather forecasters. It turns out that professional weather forecasters tend to match up with their predictions in the long run: half the time they claim there’s a 50% of rain it winds up raining, etc.
    And Sudoku helped me to more quickly grasp unrelated but eerily similar multi-level logic problems.

  3. “Onanistic” would match with what you have written, but may be too literary.
    Since a “Mental Model” is a useful exercise, you might contrast it with “Mental Mirage” or “Mental Misapplication”

  4. How about…
    “a moistering cream: it’t expensive and it looks good but there’s no lasting effect”
    “rollercoaster ride: it’s thrilling but you’ll go nowhere” (well, estimating is not thrilling, is it?)
    “footsteps in the snow: it’s impressive, but there’s no lasting effect”

  5. In Israel we usually call this activity “full gas on neutral” – a lot of noise and smoke, but no move. I somes use a term “self-deception” or “self-illusioning”. In Russian the most popular terms would be “eyewash” or “ostentation”, which means pretending to do something important (especially in eyes of a boss), but in fact it’s nothing.
    My only problem with the term you suggested is that it’s not accurate nor unique enough: there are many forms of this kind activity which do not have any “lasting effect”.

  6. I would call these activities “waste” in the sense that Mary Poppendieck discusses waste in “Lean Software Development”.

  7. I consider these types of activities to be “window dressing.” Here’s the official definition from American Heritage Dictionary – “A means of improving appearances or creating a falsely favorable impression”

  8. How about a little silly brainstorming: “useless busy-ness,” “fruitless busy-ness,” “busy banality,” “worthless work,” “effort-ful worthlessness,” “hard non-work,” “wasted effort.”

  9. “busy work” seems the most appropriate. It generally carries with it the idea that you are doing something meaningless just to have the appearance of work – which is what I hear you saying. Teams perform estimates because it is a box on the checklist, but the estimates aren’t used – except for maybe in some executive presentation powerpoint with lots of sugar.
    I’d recommend against “thought exercise” – that sounds useful.

  10. How about “meaningless rituals” – those are activities performed for no apparent meaningful reasons other than “aren’t we supposed to do it since other companies/people do it” or the book says we should do it”.

  11. I like “window dressing” from the comments above. Along with the absence of on-point progress, that term drags in the connotation that these activities do, indeed have a payoff, probably in appearances. It’s just not a payoff that moves the project forward.
    There is some risk in your examples of “window dressing” activities. Each of them could indeed be valuable, and indeed move the project forward. They may be less than ideal practices if you have an alternative. Or they may be activities which sometimes may not move the project forward. Those are both far weaker claims than “waste of time” whatever term you choose.
    Even sitting around talking about the weather can, indeed, move the project forward. Perhaps someone could use some help getting their head in the game, and this will help them.

  12. Do you mean estimation withOUT feedback?
    Do you need an “example of” ?
    You could just be direct and say
    “that’s a pleasant but pointless exercise.”
    If you want this as a literary device the only suggestions so far I like are “busy work” which is well recognized, and “meaningless rituals” which is self explanatory. All the others seem too obscure or only capture a piece of what you want or can be defined multiple ways.
    All this is a bit boring though. If you want something dramatic, to wake the reader up, then you want imagery to invoke pleasant and pointless. Something like …
    “That’s an example of dancing naked in front of your monitor, it feels good but there’s no lasting effect”

  13. Perhaps satisying the letter but not the spirit of the law. Business leaders want to know if they can book the superbowl commercial to advertise a new web2.0 petfood/grocerystore/hardware store called So engineers estimate the length of the project. Except this is the third project done by this team, and its big money time. They ought to be able to trust your estimates by now … but can they?

  14. “Wanking” is more fun to say than “masturbation”, but I think this is the wrong tack.
    A one-shot estimate is useful and there can be lasting effect (you could cancel the project!), but if it is never reality-checked, you don’t learn. So this is work without learning. Decide up front if this is going to be an unchecked, one-shot estimate. Maybe that is the right thing.
    A friend (Ian Thomas) used to quote someone else (whose name I can’t remember) as saying, “Progress is a reduction in the amount of work left to be done.” There are lots of ways to make progress, like removing features, or learning. Sometimes, a one-shot estimate is part of that. But if the effort does not reduce the amount of work left to be done, then it is wasted time and is preventing progress by diverting effort from something that would cause progress.

  15. I’m with Walter. Estimation without feedback is not necessarily a wasted activity. Johanna, could you possibly come up with some clearer examples of what you mean?
    Is it about thinking you are doing something which you aren’t? Or simply doing non-productive things?
    Or doing things which are productive but not to the project. (e.g. studying a cool new technology and hiding it within the project budget)
    Sudoku exercises the brain and makes you less flabby. Sudoku may even improve your ability as a programmer or as a project manager. (Any psychologists looking for a PhD thesis?) That isn’t what you meant though, is it?
    I think you are right to be chary of references to masturbation, as the metaphor is likely to distract from the message for some people.
    I suspect that if you can clarify the question, you might not need help with the answer. How about two or three examples that don’t mention estimation?

  16. If I understand the scenario, it feels like a case of “monkey see, monkey do” or imitation without understanding.
    There is also, I think, a cargo cult aspect to such behavior – the PM in question has seen this done by a purportedly successful colleague, therefore they feel obliged to do it, too.
    One of my favorite quotes might be (tangentially) appropriate: “Strategy without tactics is a slow road to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat” – Sun Tzu (of course)

  17. I’ll have “mental masturbation” for one thousand. It has the potential of catching most people’s attention.

  18. Johanna,upon reading your query I thought about many “make work” or “non-value added” activities that project managers and team members are often asked to perform by managers, auditors, customers and others. These tasks are usually performed to satisfy someone’s view of “process,” where the process itself may have some value, or had value at a prior time, but achieving certain results seems less important than performing the specified process steps. Being required to fill out all the fields on a form, for instance, when the real value can be gained by completing only a small percentage of fields.
    However, I do not consider your example of estimating without feedback to be a non-value add task. The very process of estimating, particularly if done in conjunction with the person(s) who will actually be performing the tasks being estimated, solidifies understanding of the task and the resources needed to perform them. I have often uncovered considerable misunderstanding about expectations based on widely divergent estimates of the same task.
    I will acknowledge that estimating without feedback is far from optimal, and makes little sense, but the estimating itself is not wasted effort, regardless of whether feedback is ever obtained.
    I am anxious to see your book. It seems that I’ve read dozens of books on this topic, but your insights are always new and thought provoking.

  19. Johanna – There are many things that project teams do that do not directly contribute to delivery velocity.
    Click the Homepage link to see my post about this (trackback failed) repeatedly…

  20. From: and somewhat on point.
    “The Break-Dancing Chicken
    Oh yeah. First I have to tell you about the chicken. We’ve done the cats, we’ve done the chili, we’re on to the chicken. Almost ready for the final act, which is really gonna piss a lot of people off, I can tell you that right now.
    In 1986, my college Psychology 101 professor told us a little story about her Abnormal Psych class from the previous year. The students each got a lab rat, and they had to train their rats to run through mazes by rewarding the rats for exhibiting properly ratty maze behavior. But there was one girl who was terrified of rats, so they gave her a chicken, and she trained it to play the piano by pecking notes with its beak. Each time the chicken played the right notes, she’d give it a pellet (or whatever the hell chickens eat). Wrong notes, no pellet. She’d teach it one new note at a time, and eventually it would know the whole song.
    At one point, after she’d coaxed the chicken to learn maybe half its song, the chicken made a violent side-to-side motion just before playing exactly the right sequence of notes, including the new note she was trying to teach it. It had played the right notes, so she had to give it a pellet. The chicken had definitely figured out that doing what she wanted would get it yummy pellets. After that last pellet, it decided that it had been rewarded for both the note and the motion, and from then on, it made crazy twisting motions continuously as it played. She had to keep rewarding it when it played the right notes, and she had no good way of informing it that the twisting was unnecessary (not without starting over, and there wasn’t time). So the chicken went on happily believing that thrashing violently was helping its project succeed.
    They eventually went on tour to the local colleges with it, billing it as “The Break-Dancing, Piano-Playing Chicken”.
    Our prof told us wide-eyed freshmen that this phenomenon is called superstition, and it refers to the exact same kind of superstition you think of when someone mentions black cats, walking under ladders, breaking mirrors, opening umbrellas indoors, and so on. ‘Superstition’ is any belief not based on scientific experiment or pure deductive reasoning. (More or less.)”

  21. Johanna – A couple of the suggestions so far are quite good, but the first one that can to mind for me was “mental wheel spinning”. There is a connectability with the wheels of the mind and the spinning of the wheels on a car. The spinning of car tires will often move a vehicle forwards, but usually in a very inefficient way.

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