Posted by: rolfsky | February 6, 2008

avoiding toy duck syndrome

“Toy Duck Syndrome” is what happens when a company bases its strategy on what is currently most pressing; let us say, the problem “du jour”.

Specifically, toy duck syndrome is the what the employees feel, as if they were a toy duck, jerked back and forth on a short string. With no end to this treatment in sight, this method of functioning ultimately wears out the workers, Wall Street, and management as everyone wonders “where are we/they going?” In short, it destroys confidence and tires people out.

The solution to TDS involves “lengthening the string” by setting a distant point on the horizon and saying,”Over there, that’s where we’re going.” This horizon point serves as a constant goal upon which to steady our eyes and calm our stomachs.

To understand where TDS comes from, imagine in your head this sad toy duck, being dragged over rough terrain or through turbulent water. The duck bounces and snaps left and right, always trying to re-orient itself to whatever direction the string is pulling now. Internally, intense twisting force is applied with each new obstacle and if you were to ride that duck, you would be very dizzy.

The “string” I am referring to, is the stated goal of management as perceived by both internal and external stakeholders. The internal players take each new goal as a direction (there’s a reason why some people call it a directive), and the external players examine where the leaders are “pulling” now.

The length of the string represents the span of time any one strategy is in effect. Short strings represent rapid and frequent changes, long strings imply a more measured attitude.

One reason management may choose a “short string” is when they are managing to a stock price, or to Wall Street. Because company financials are generally quantified on quarterly or half-yearly schedules, the string is tugging in a new direction every 12 to 24 weeks. This will undoubtedly result in winning each battle while losing the war.

Time spent “hitting the numbers” for one quarter is ultimately borrowed from forward progress in the next quarter; this becomes a vicious cycle.

The opposite of quarterly goal changes is a pattern which sets the “great” companies apart from the “good”. These companies maintain consistent realizable guidelines across years, decades, and even centuries.

At the Customer Service is the New Marketing conference in San Francisco, Tony Hsieh, CEO of gave a great presentation on what makes Zappos “special”. As he spoke, I couldn’t help but mentally compare him to another of my favorite companies, Southwest Airlines.

Later in the day, my growing theory was further supported by a speaker from the Virgin group (parent company of Virgin Records, Virgin Atlantic, Virgin Mobile and scads of other Virgin businesses).

What Zappos, Virgin and Southwest Airlines all have in common is very consistent long-term goals. These fundamental principles upon which they based their business form the bedrock of their company.

Interestingly enough, none of their goals involved hitting sales or growth numbers and all included statements about how they treat their employees and customers.

These statements serve as very long strings to tow their ducks with. While the environment may change around them, only subtle course corrections are required in any given moment as the destination is ever-present and immobile.

With a bit of thought, it’s easy to see why short strings reduce morale (internal confusion), squander resources (activity switching costs and unfinished initiatives) and reduce productivity (having to constantly re-learn the “right” answer.)

Of course, the answer lies in a “balance”, but without a long string, how will your employees know where you will all end up?


For those of you who never had a toy duck, it looks like this, but it’s a duck.

A dog pull toy
Image copyright sheeshoo from flickr.



  1. This is very true:

    “None of their goals involved hitting sales or growth numbers and all included statements about how they treat their employees.”

    As they say, don’t talk about profits because they won’t come. Instead, take care of your people and resources, and focus on your improvement. Everything else follows.

    Good insights!

  2. […] […]

  3. This is also true in education. Here the teachers and the students are on the sometimes very short strings of irate parents or their 12 year old peers, textbook power states like Texas or administrators.
    And what is it like to be pulled around in circles when your little ducky head knows the goal but your straight line to this goal just gets farther and farther away. Tiring to the little ducky and only fun for the first go round.

  4. […] Avoiding Toy Duck Syndrome – the importance of long-term vision […]

  5. […] perhaps this all relates back to the toy duck syndrome… if you’re managing to a stock price on a quarterly basis, or worrying about wall-street, […]

  6. Great blog, reading it through RSS feed as well

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