Why are there so many ‘dead birds’ in my office?

This blog discusses the concept of "dead birds," representing the challenging tasks brought to managers for immediate resolution, which can hinder productivity. It outlines a strategy involving one-on-one meetings, empowerment through guidelines, and team-building to promote proactive problem-solving and emphasize presenting solutions to superiors.

Understanding Dead Birds: A Manager’s Perspective

I was talking to my colleague and friend Michelle Newcome the other day, and she off-handedly mentioned how hard it was for her not to get overloaded with critical issues that were brought to her last minute and for immediate attention (I think I may have been a source for some of her frustration). I laughed at her jokingly and used the term, “Oh, the dead birds, that’s what you’ve got!”

What she was lamenting with me was the same as my time as the director of a large office responsible for a utility’s Crisis and Emergency Management program. When I started using the term dead birds, I was a new manager with four or five staff reporting to me. They were all new in their roles in my office, and I found myself, somewhat affectionately, mentioning to them, “Don’t come in here if it’s just another dead bird.”

Identifying Dead Birds

And what, exactly, are dead birds? Dead birds were all the myriad of escalated daily tasks and actions that the team felt were too hard, could not be done, caused frustration, or did not want to do. Dead birds were tasks that, on the surface, seemed impossible to the employee, but if they escalated to me, they knew I could fix it or fight about it. Either way, it was off their plate and onto mine.

Dead birds = tasks that employees escalate instead of fixing themselves.

As the team grew and our mission scope increased, I realized that there was a direct correlation between my productivity and the team’s productivity. As our scope and size grew and I accepted the dead birds at face value, the team had even more time to constantly bring me problems and issues they felt they couldn’t (or wouldn’t) solve. All this did was fill my time solving, fixing, or mitigating other superfluous issues and limiting my ability to execute the critical tasks I needed to get done to support the whole office.

What Are Dead Birds Keeping You From Doing?

A great example was a staff member who came into my office complaining that they were doing critical planning for an alternate power supply for pump stations and said, “Jon, I couldn’t get people to attend the sessions. It would be best if you got them to participate.”

Unwittingly or without really thinking about it, I accepted the dead bird; I got in touch with my contacts and stakeholders to reorganize meeting dates, make sure invites were sent, and gain commitment for people to attend these important sessions. I also mentioned we would provide lunch and snacks if you attended the sessions.

What I didn’t realize at the time (or did realize at the time but didn’t want to accept) was that the time spent getting these stakeholders to this meeting and getting these stakeholders engaged took me away from the critical functions that I was expected to execute as the leader of that department – which included additional headcount requests to support our increased workload. I ended up working late and getting my work done (and yes, we did get an additional headcount), but I realized that I didn’t have enough time in the day to do my job and accept the myriad of dead birds that the team kept dropping on my desk.

Strategies for Managing Dead Birds

As the team matured, grew, and got bigger, more and more people demanded more and more time to try and fix the dead birds that they deposited into my office. To fix this ‘problem’ within the team, I developed a multi-faceted strategy that I executed over a few months.

Step 1: Help Everyone See the Problem

  • Initially, I met one-on-one with each team member (this was to mitigate the perception of blaming team members in a group setting).
  • I framed and identified that there was a problem with how we were all problem-solving (myself included with my VP) and explained that when problems came to my office or when dead birds came to my office for me to own, then time was taken away from me doing my critical functions that could better support them doing their job.

Step 2: Frame the Issue to Empower Team Members

  • I then explained to each employee that it was critical that instead of just bringing a dead bird to my office and leaving it on my desk and making it my problem to solve or fix or improve, the individual had to provide some critical thinking or evidence of critical thinking to identify the solution and how they would fix it if they didn’t have any barriers or ultimate authority to fix the issue.
  • Framing the issue as coming to me with solutions allowed the employee to think critically about a solution or even identify a path to success, and then when they came to my office, it was not an immediate handoff but rather an opportunity to learn and partner on how they would fix or solve the issue.
  • By the time they came to my office, we could immediately discuss how we could best utilize time and resources to fix this particular issue that they had identified.

Step 3: Build Resources for Team Resilience

  • I spent time and created some guidelines and processes that employees could use.
  • These guidelines revolved around the core issues that had become dead birds.
  • One of them was setting spending limits (for meals or event spaces) that I had to approve, which did not include, “Jon just takes over the entire event planning process.”
  • Another was developing standard workflows for stakeholder outreach (meeting invites, number of times to email, stakeholder identification, etc.).

Benefits of providing resources:

  • These few simple efforts set the team off on a clear and level playing field.
  • The team was empowered to make independent decisions with my pre-commitment to support them even if hindsight proved that may not have been the ideal decision or a decision that was made potentially without additional context.
  • Ensuring I had their back mitigated the need for the team to feel that they had to come back to me repeatedly to get feedback or solutions to problems they thought were my job to fix.

Step 4: Shore up Weaknesses With Training

  • I organized with Team Results to engage the whole team in a professional team-building program focused on decision-making and managing problems and issues within the group setting.
  • This allowed the whole team to explore their weaknesses and strengths, to understand what was happening within the office dynamics, and how they could contribute to solving what appeared to be insurmountable problems.
  • It also allowed me to get on with the business of trying to get all of the resources and support needed for my team so that they were successful in executing our job and that our team was delivering its core mission to our customers.

You Have To Own Your Part in Dead Bird Syndrome

Acknowledge that your own actions might be creating a culture of dead birds. Here’s your gut check on that, when you’re sitting at work or the home office thinking about dead birds, ask yourself:

“Where did they all come from, and why do they keep coming into my office?”

You should also look up your reporting chain and ask yourself,

“Am I doing the same thing to my supervisor? Am I dropping dead birds on my manager’s desk?

In Summary,

I encourage everyone who has a problem that seems impossible and unsolvable:

  • Take the time to sit down and think critically about the problem’s root cause.
  • If I had unlimited control and influence, how would I immediately fix this issue?
  • What is needed to make this issue solvable or less of a problem?
  • Is this issue already addressed in training, standard operating procedures, or policy?

When you go to your boss, don’t just dump a dead bird of problems on their desk. Re-animate that bird by also having solutions and ideas. This will lessen the amount of time your boss has to put time and effort into the problem and also provide some potential ideas on how it could easily and more efficiently be solved.

  1. What are "dead birds" in the context of this blog, and why are they problematic for managers?
  2. Have you ever dropped a dead bird on someone’s desk? Could you have avoided it?
  3. What are the consequences for managers of just accepting dead birds?
  4. Do you think the strategies we’ve shared for solving dead bird syndrome can work for your team?

I hope you take the tips in this blog and implement them into action to help you and your team. Don’t let dead birds hold you back – take charge of your productivity today!