The Duck Project

Every organization has some "ducks." Ducks are employees who have a detrimental effect on productivity. Their work is consistently substandard, they rarely meet deadlines, and their skills are out of date. They hate change, resist taking responsibility, and blame their failures on co-workers. They constantly complain about their projects, their teammates, their workloads and their managers. They stifle innovation by shooting down new proposals, claiming that changes "just can't be done."

Every employee -- even the one who appears to be a duck -- deserves honest feedback and the opportunity to improve. Perhaps he is merely in the wrong job or has never had an honest performance appraisal. Feedback, training and a fair chance may transform a near duck into a productive team member.

Real ducks, however, are not interested in being transformed.

Ducks are dangerous to the health of your organization. Their lack of contribution de-motivates other employees. High performers are further demoralized by getting a raise that is only 1% higher than that of the duck in the next cubicle. Yet HR policies frequently demand extensive justification for raises or bonuses that are larger or smaller than what the corporate guidelines recommend.

Ducks enter your organization in various ways. They can be acquired through a merger, an acquisition, a promotion or an internal reorganization. You may even hire your own ducks, since it is almost impossible to get candid performance appraisals from past employers. The potential for litigation has caused many corporations to limit reference checks to merely confirming dates of employment. Many hiring mistakes result from a lack of comprehensive references.

In a perfect world, you would have very few ducks in your organization, and you could easily fire them or counsel them into jobs better suited to their skills. (Even ducks can say, "Would you like fries with that?") Realistically, there are times when you get hit with both barrels: a large number of ducks and inflexible HR policies. This deadly combination requires a creative solution.

Here's one I've heard about:

A decentralized Fortune 500 company with strong business units hired its first corporate CIO and gave him a mandate to rationalize IT across the business units. He quickly discovered many ducks among his staff. Why? For the previous decade, the business units had used the small, weak corporate IT organization as their "duck pond." It was much easier to transfer their ducks to corporate than to navigate the extensive process required to fire them.

The new CIO needed to quickly reshape his organization, but he was faced with HR policies that limited his ability to terminate nonperforming employees. He created a "duck project," a low-importance project whose main purpose was to provide a centralized location into which the ducks could be herded. This reduced the duck factor on other, higher-priority projects, increasing their likelihood of success.

After making sure that the executive team understood the duck project's real purpose (and had committed to protecting his IT head count), the CIO canceled the project and laid off its staff. He was then able to rebuild his IT organization and replace the ducks with productive employees. This approach saved money, increased IT delivery capability and improved department morale.

Some might claim that creating a duck project skates uncomfortably close to the edge of ethical practices. Others assert that a duck project is one of the few management techniques left to deal with large numbers of unproductive employees. These supporters argue that ineffective IT organizations are often outsourced completely, so it is better to sacrifice the ducks and save the rest of the IT department.

If ducks are weighing down your organization, consider rounding them up and declaring open season. Quack, quack ... bang!

Bart Perkins is managing partner at Louisville, Ky.-based Leverage Partners Inc., which helps organizations invest well in IT. Contact him at

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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