The Useless Mindset of Spilled Milk Management

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The Useless Mindset of Spilled Milk Management

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"Don't cry over spilled milk." That's what they say. I'm not sure exactly who "they" are, but they must not be American managers, because in my experience, crying over spilled milk is common among managers in this country. You've seen it happen. Things are moving along just fine on a project when all of the sudden… WHAM! There is a surprise that no one expected. Something goes wrong that wasn't even discussed as a potential pitfall before the project began.

At this point, there are two ways to respond. The first is what many people do – cry over the spilled milk. The second, is to accept it and move on. Managers that embrace the first option don't deal well with employees that embrace the second. You end up with situations like this…

Manager: Well what do we do now?

Employee: We can do one of three things (explains all 3 options).

Manager: I just wished this hadn't happened.

Employee: Yes I understand, but that is irrelevant.

Manager: Yeah, I know… but I just… why did this happen?

Employee: I don't know. We didn't see it coming, but we have to react. We have to do something.

Manager: I'll have to think about it. I just can't believe this happened.

The whole time, the manager's mind is obsessing about the problem, and can't stop to focus on the solution. The manager becomes so aggravated that, as a result, the problem isn't solved in a timely fashion. Every discussion about the problem revolves around the manager explaining to people how she can't believe this actually happened.

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Spilled milk management is a waste of time. It devotes resources to what is a mental sunk cost, and as we all know from our accounting classes, sunk costs are to be ignored.

If you work for a spilled milk manager, my suggestion is that you convince them to move on by pointing out that you can analyze the problem at a later date, devote more resources to it, and understand why it happened and how you missed it.

If you are a spilled milk manager, you probably have control issues. You need to accept that business is a dynamic field, and that decisions will always have to be made with imperfect information. No matter how hard you wish it didn't happen, you will never be able to go back in time and prevent it. Consider it an investment in learning.

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  • July 10, 2006 at 12:30 pm

    Careful, this strategy might backfire on you. A manager might interpret your calm response as being disconnected and not emotionality involved.

    I follow the ‘Don’t Cry’ philosophy and was slightly dinged in my last review for not getting in an uproar about a problem that arose.

    Sometimes you can be viewed as not being a ‘team’ player if you go this route.

  • Tiana
    February 15, 2008 at 5:26 am

    It depends what exactly has spilt. Business is dynamic, however, if a mistake is made perhaps this is a signal that the environment is more complex and uncertain than expected. It might be time for a manager to look at what is going on.

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