Turkeys everywhere, at Polyface Farms in Virginia.

What To Do With Turkeys In The Company

E. Forrest Christian Overachievers Leave a Comment

“He was turkey farmed, and there wasn’t anything to do but ride it out to retirement.”

We were talking about his old colleague. The guy had run afoul of his commander at the base for his insistence on following some environmental policy or other. The commander had “promoted” him to a special project with a special office. Each day, he walked past his old, busy team office, down a corridor with bad lighting, past rooms used for office storage and other DoD detritus, to the very end of the building. Where the special project office sat.

That’s the turkey farm. Somewhere out of the way where they don’t have to see you, don’t have to deal with you, and nothing that you do will matter.

He rode it out for 22 more months, then retired from service.

This old story was told to me by a Lt. Col. (ret.) I was working with, many years ago in Texas. It’s what I recall, and I’ve used the term “turkey farming” since. But no one in business seems to know it.

Maj. Dan Ward (USAF) describes it in proactive terms in his excellent article on Program Management, “Socrates in Washington, D.C.” (Defense AT&L, July-August 2008). From his perspective, and likely that commanding officer’s, anyone who is dragging down the program is a “turkey”. You can’t get rid of them, so you have to manage them by giving them tasks to do that don’t matter but seem important.

I’ve done this: back in the day, I ran an Exchange implementation engineering project for a decent sized company (120,000 seats). I was consulting to the outsource company that ran IT, but had to deal directly with the point of contact inside their client. This person was gunning for me and the project from the get-go, which I never understood since we would take all the risks and she would be able to run things going forward.

To me, she was a “turkey”.

So, I farmed her.

I assigned my most appealing and personable messaging engineer to essentially babysit her. I would feed him information that would encourage her going down rabbit holes, where she could berate us to her managers, feel important, but in the end not get in the way of getting this project done. We had hard deadlines and constantly moving targets. Someone who just wanted to blow things up needed to go somewhere else.

Ward says that the late Jerry Harvey referred to this practice as “Phrog Farming”, but meant the same thing. Harvey was a keen observer of organizational life, and any of his articles and books are worth reading. He understood that there are people who can’t get into the Promised Land, a generation that had to die wandering in the wilderness. (Harvey, a longtime Baptist, would have appreciated the imagery.) See his “Organizations As Phrog Farms”, Organizational Dynamics, Spring 1977.

I also thought that Ward’s emphasis on Principles vs. Rules popped my eyes open a bit. It’s amazing to see, but you can create some really complex “behaviors” that mirror reality uncomfortably closely by simply follow very simple principles. Evolutionists use these models to show how complex organisms can develop from simple underlying rules. Sociologists showed how segregation can result from a simple tendency to want to live near people who look like you. Others have used it to model markets and complex flows.

This is really what Agile methods try to do; or, if you prefer the old nomenclature, “high performing teams” methods. Use a small set of principles to guide action at all times.

Image Credit: Turkeys everywhere, at Polyface Farms in Virginia. By Jessica Reeder. CC-By-SA 2.0.

About the Author

Forrest Christian

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E. Forrest Christian is a consultant, coach, author, trainer and speaker at The Manasclerk Company who helps individuals and companies find insight and solutions to what seem like insolvable problems. Cited for his "unique ability and insight" by his clients, Forrest has worked with people from almost every background, from artists to programmers to executives to global consultants, both as individuals and as leaders of organizations at least as diverse. [contact]

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