Feeling Useless

There’s an anecdote that regularly does the rounds on the subject of dealing with micromanagement; that of “The Queen’s Duck”.

It’s hard to say where it first appeared, but the most shared description comes from the “Duck” entry on Coding Horror:

This started as a piece of Interplay corporate lore. It was well known that producers (a game industry position, roughly equivalent to PMs) had to make a change to everything that was done. The assumption was that subconsciously they felt that if they didn’t, they weren’t adding value.

The artist working on the queen animations for Battle Chess was aware of this tendency, and came up with an innovative solution. He did the animations for the queen the way that he felt would be best, with one addition: he gave the queen a pet duck. He animated this duck through all of the queen’s animations, had it flapping around the corners. He also took great care to make sure that it never overlapped the “actual” animation.

Eventually, it came time for the producer to review the animation set for the queen. The producer sat down and watched all of the animations. When they were done, he turned to the artist and said, “that looks great. Just one thing - get rid of the duck.”

It’s a great story, and a novel solution by the programmer, but what I find interesting is how the internet unaminously disparages the producer in the anecdote:

The sacrificial duck kept the meddling manager away from the stuff that was important.

The producers of the game were known to demand changes to the game, presumably to make their mark on the finished product.

It is true that this appears to be a great example of “The Bike Shed Effect”, or Parkinson’s Law of Triviality. It would be easy to explain away the behaviour as meddling, territory-marking managers seeking to stroke their ego.

But is it really that simple?

Justifying your Existence

The earliest reference I could find, quoted above, makes a throwaway reference to a critical point:

The assumption was that subconsciously they felt that if they didn’t, they weren’t adding value.

When your role is to review, or oversee, it’s really easy to feel useful when there are things that need fixing, or questions that need answering. Your time is needed, your input is valued; you can see how you’re pulling your weight on the project. But what happens when there’s nothing that needs fixing?

In a support role - like a Manager, or the Producer in the anecdote - every now and then you will “oversee” a project that frankly didn’t need your help. There were no real blockers, no unexpected surprises, no conflicts that needed resolving. In those moments, it’s extremely easy to feel like you’re a waste of space, and it’s a perfectly human response to try and find something, anything you can do that helps you justify your existence.

What follows is an overwhelming urge to be useful in some way, to find anything that proves to yourself that you aren’t completely redundant. This can manifest itself in things like excessive attention to trivial detail, asking really obvious questions that didn’t need asking, or constructing implausible failure scenarios and proposing a fix that would Save the Project.

It takes a lot of self-belief to resist this. It takes experience and self-restraint to follow through on the knowledge that we have safety systems in case things go wrong, not because things go wrong. You may own a car for 10 years and never need its airbags; after selling it, you don’t think “Well, paying for those airbags was a waste!”.


There are two sides to this one.

If you are the overseer, don’t fret it if a project is going smoothly without you. That’s good! What matters is the success of the project, not your specific involvement in making it successful. If your management doesn’t understand that, you’ve got an organisational culture problem, not a personal productivity problem.

  • Find something else useful you can be doing with your time, like planning for what’s next, or addressing a process improvement on a wider scale than your team. This is a perfect example of “Go-Slow Time” - take the time to learn and reflect, while you’re not needed by your team.
  • Keep an eye on the project; just because nothing needs your input now, doesn’t mean that something won’t come up. You should be in a position to act quickly if it does.
  • If nothing needs fixing, don’t create problems to fix! It’s perfectly possible that everything will be fine without you. It’s not a failure if you don’t spot something to improve.

If you are on the receiving end of this behaviour, first and foremost, be kind, and assume positive intent. It’s likely that they’re feeling useless and trying to help; give them a chance before labelling them an overbearing micromanager marking their territory.

As ingenious a solution the Queen’s Duck was, in the grand scheme of things is just created extra work and slowed the project down - animating the duck to make it easy to remove would have required time and effort on what was essentially just a smokescreen. Instead of creating distractions, you could try:

  • Managing up/making them feel valued: “Hey, I know you haven’t had a lot to do on this project but it’s reassuring knowing you’re there to help if anything goes wrong. With any luck we’ll be able to complete without needing you to step in!”
  • Don’t wait for them to find their own “problems”. Seek their input where it’s actually valuable.
  • If you have to smokescreen, do it early. The designer above could have achieved the same goal by consulting the producer before completing the designs and allowing them to rule out the Queen’s Duck before going through the effort of designing it.
  • You could combine the above: “Hey, I’ve completed the initial sketches for the animations. I’m happy with most of them but I’d appreciate your feedback on this Duck…”.

Sometimes, none of the above will work. Sometimes people need an intervention, and their behaviour pointed out to them (but try to remember that receiving critical feedback is hard). Sometimes it’s their manager that’s the problem. Sometimes, they are just vain and self-serving. But we could all do to remember that more often than not, what feels like meddling to you is just people trying to help, and feel valued.