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Atwood’s Duck: How to Achieve Perfection

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry famously said that perfection was achieved, not when there was nothing more to add. But when there was nothing left to take away. The pioneering aviator understood the importance of reducing something to its purest form. You may have put in hard work and a lot of effort to achieve this level of professional skill. But what if your manager wants to take your work beyond perfection? Then you might benefit from deploying Atwood’s Duck. It’s a cunning manoeuvre to save your work from unwarranted criticism. However, it’s not without risk.

What Is Atwood’s Duck?

Atwood‘s Duck is a prominent yet superfluous design element. It’s only added so that a manager known for making unnecessary changes can ask to have it removed. This way – so the idea – the rest of the project can remain unaltered. Originally a programming term, the concept was popularised by Jeff Atwood, co-founder of Stack Overflow. He relates the following anecdote about a computer game design company:

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.”

Jeff Atwood, New Programming Jargon

More broadly, Atwood’s Duck is synonymous with an attempt to outsmart a manager, client, or stakeholder. But also of organisational dysfunction at the personal level. If you want to keep people from interfering with your work of perfection, give them something too obvious to not criticise. But Beyond this smart solution lies an unspoken power dynamic worth exploring.

A Tale of Two Perspectives

We can look at Atwood’s Duck as a power game between producer/manager and designer/creator. Both have competing backgrounds and motivations that drive them. We start with the former.

Managing Trivialities

From the producer’s perspective, controlling the quality of the projects, that is making changes to them, is his Daseinsberechtigung. As Atwood himself points out, it’s an implicit part of his position description. Perhaps unspoken company policy even. If we give him the benefit of a doubt, he acts with the good intention to add value. Even though Atwood suggests that it’s mainly a matter of ego. After all, people need a sense of purpose. They need to feel that they’re making a difference. Otherwise, why are they even there?

The manager’s unfortunate situation is reminiscent of the Law of Triviality. Bikeshedding, as it’s also called, is one of the reasons why meetings often feel like a waste of time. It was C. Northcote Parkinson who figured out that, in meetings, we tend to spend more time talking about trivial issues (e.g. a company bike shed) than discussing complex and more significant ones (e.g. a nuclear power reactor project). As a result, important decisions are made at the lowest level of everyone’s expertise.

Similarly, it seems like our video game producer lacks the knowledge and skill to make substantive changes to the project. He wants to add value. He just doesn’t know how. The duck is presented as a feature that speaks to his level of expertise. On top of that, it’s one that he cannot ignore, triggering the human addiction to correct. But who knows, maybe the manager is in on the silliness of the situation; welcoming the decoy duck as a clever way so both he and the game designer can save face?

Unintended Consequences

From the creator’s perspective, Atwood’s Duck is a necessary gambit. A manoeuvre to give the producer the sense of achievement he craves. Had he not spent an unreasonable amount of time animating a pointless duck, the creator’s work would have once again been unfairly criticised or changed unnecessarily. However, the decoy has to be sufficiently useless so even a layperson can pick up on its stupidity. But it can’t be too crude. Otherwise, it would make the creator look incompetent. He might not realise it, but the creator’s ego and reputation are on the line, too.

In any case, the communication between creator and producer has effectively broken down. As a result, the game designer seems to follow one of Robert Greene’s infamous 48 Laws of Power: “Never outshine the master.” According to Greene, it’s important to “always make those above you feel comfortably superior,” which can be done by making “your masters appear more brilliant than they are”. (Check out my article about Greene’s book.) In our scenario, the creator seemingly gives the producer what he needs: a sense of authority over the project.

But there’s the risk of unintended consequences. Apart from everyone wasting their time and being less productive, the manoeuvre takes away attention from the actual imperfections of a project. Perhaps there was something else to add. Perhaps something other than the duck had to be taken away. Or, in the worst-case scenario, what if the manager doesn’t fall for your little decoy and is happy with the work the way it is?

Atwood‘s Duck Remastered

If we trace the problem back to its roots, we could blame leadership and company culture. As clever as it is, having to resort to Atwood’s Duck as a red herring is probably not a sign of a healthy workplace. But perhaps we can salvage the spirit of Atwood’s Duck and put it to good use.

The Straw Man Proposal

First, we could use the manoeuvre as a visual Straw Man Proposal. When making recommendations for decision-makers, the straw man option is inadequate by design. It’s placed in-between the serious ones so as to highlight the strength of other proposals including the most preferred one. Though it’s important to note that the straw man proposal tends to be used transparently. People involved are usually made aware of the straw man’s purpose.

Similarly, Atwood’s Duck strikes me as the perfect little provocation to get people talking about the nature of perfection — in game design or otherwise. Add something well-crafted but (seemingly) superfluous and watch what happens. It’s a subtle way to keep the exchange light yet avoid groupthink; akin to via negativa and inverted thinking. If we want to make it even more interesting, we could ask one participant to play devil’s advocate and steelman a project’s most ridiculous sounding features.

The Litmus Test for Leadership

Using Atwood’s Duck as a litmus test for leadership is a second possibility. It can come in the form of a behavioural interview question or a role-play scenario. How are people managing up and down when confronted with Atwood’s scenario? It should be interesting to put two candidates in the awkward positions of creator and producer and watch it play out.

How does the manager in the scenario react when given the perceived power over the creator and his or her seemingly imperfect piece of work? How does the creator handle the pushback — or lack thereof? Careful though, this kind of meta exercise doesn’t absolve us from figuring out beforehand what we’d consider an ideal solution for Atwood’s scenario. In other words, before we put two people in this situation, we should develop criteria to evaluate their responses.

The Negotiation Approach

Given the potential downsides of Atwood’s Duck, it might be worth having a last look at solving the situation without it. Maybe, just maybe, everyone involved just lacks the right negotiation skills to make it work. A first step might be to involve the manager much earlier in the project. There also seems to be a lack of trust. Getting to know each other a bit better might help with that.

Both could use negotiation skills such as tactical empathy, mirroring and labels to appreciate each others’ perspectives and uncover each other’s Black Swans. The goal would be to get to a point where both have an understanding of what they can contribute to a project and what not. And maybe even have a laugh about what human nature and the company’s culture made them do.

Closing Thoughts

In its original form, Atwood’s Duck makes for a hilarious office anecdote. In reality, it’s a gamble that risks making everything worse. More than about perfection, the strategy seems to be a case study in office politics. Those little power games that blur the line between collaboration and competition.

They say the best strategy to cope with terrible managers is to make them look good. If everything goes to plan, Atwood’s Duck certainly achieves that. But the decoy doesn’t seem like a viable long-term strategy. I guess when dealing with people, perfection is achieved when everyone knows they’re taken seriously.