The Duck Canopy Incident & Its Unexpected Lessons for Work

It’s easy to get fixated on a problem and how you might solve it. I saw that it was hot, and my ducks didn’t have much shade or protection from hawks. A canopy would solve that. Done. But I didn’t think through what else could happen in addition to solving my problem. I didn’t consider how my solution could create new problems.

You may not be aware that Richard has a flock of ducks. Recently, Richard’s ducks had the most traumatic day of their lives, and it generated some unexpected lessons for humans at work. In this episode, Peter and Richard reflect on what happened and some lessons we learned to lead change more effectively.

Learn More

Humanizing Work’s Leadership Intensive.To go deeper on topics like this, join our new Leadership Intensive (virtual, instructor-led). Humanizing Work’s Leadership Intensive is structured as a series of practical half-day workshops on the concepts, skills, and tools leaders need to lead empowered teams and individuals effectively. Registration our Jul-Sep cohort is open now.

Theory of Constraints (TOC). Learn more about the Theory of Constraints in our online, self-guided TOC mini-course (just $49).

Episode transcription

Richard Lawrence

My ducks were living their best life. They’d settled in on our new property. They were happily swimming in their little pool in the shade of their new canopy. And in a moment, all that calm was shattered. A gust of wind ripped the canopy and its stakes off the ground, sending it flying across the field and into our barbed wire fence. The ducks lost their minds, quacking and flying in every direction before running back into their duck house, which they basically refused to leave for the next 3 days.

In this episode, we’re looking at the most traumatic day of my ducks’ lives and some of the unexpected lessons we found for humans at work.

Peter Green

But before we get into Richard’s ducks’ worst day ever, what we can learn from it, and, fortunately, how the ducks recovered, a reminder that this show is a free resource sponsored by the Humanizing Work company.

Humanizing Work exists to make work more fit for humans and humans more capable of doing great work. To that end, we do training and coaching in three areas:

  1. We help leaders lead empowered teams and individuals more effectively
  2. We help product people turn their ideas into good visions, experiments, and backlogs
  3. We help teams collaborate better to produce meaningful outcomes on complex work

If you or your organization would benefit from better leadership, better product management, or better collaboration, and if you find our vision for human-centric work compelling, visit the contact page on and schedule a conversation with us.


I should probably share some backstory here… My wife and I recently moved out of the city. We’re in the early days of what’ll probably be a multi-decade long project to build a regenerative farm and winery here in Colorado’s North Fork Valley. That’s a whole story of its own, but the important part for now is that one of the experiments we ran before moving was getting a flock of ducks in our backyard to see if we like working with livestock even on a small scale. Eight ducks isn’t much, but it was a small, safe-to-fail experiment that could falsify—if not validate—the “we like managing livestock” hypothesis. Because if we didn’t like eight ducks in a back yard, we were not going to like ducks and sheep and grapevines and all these other things.

Ducks, it turns out, really like routine. They get stressed when things change because, well, a lot of other animals like eating them, and ducks don’t have much in the way of defense. “Sitting duck” is an idiom for a reason.

After we moved out here a couple of weeks ago, it took the ducks a bit of time to get settled in. But we brought their house and their pool, so at least that part was familiar and routine for them. On the one hand, they had much more room to roam, and they had lots more tasty plants and bugs to eat. On the other hand, they also had big, scary views that they didn’t have in our backyard in the city, and they had an electric fence to get used to. So, it took them several days to adjust.

Now, on one of my many trips to the hardware store after we’d set up the duck enclosure, I noticed a shade canopy for sale. It’s been pretty hot out here, so that seemed like a nice thing to add over the ducks’ pool to keep the water cool and keep them a little safer from aerial predators. So, I picked up the canopy.

My son and I got it set up, per the instructions on the package. The stakes that held it down seemed kind of flimsy, but I assumed that the canopy makers knew what they were doing.

Well, as you know from the intro to this episode, the stakes did not in fact do their job. A big gust of wind sent the canopy sailing off into our barbed wire perimeter fence and sent the ducks scattering and, eventually, hiding in their house for a few days.

Ducks’ favorite thing in the whole world is splashing around in fresh water. So I change the water in their little kiddie pool pond every few days. While they were hiding in their house, it was time to change the pond, so I did it. I pumped out the nasty water—and watered our pasture with it—and I cleaned the little pool and I filled it with fresh water. This, I figured, would be the thing that finally got the ducks back out.

Nope. They wouldn’t even come out to swim. It was over 90º Fahrenheit here. But they still weren’t into it.

And this got me thinking, after I stopped talking about how stupid the ducks were, about how sometimes I’m like my ducks.

I’ve had negative experiences that make me sort of overreact to preserve my own safety. Here’s an example that came to mind. For a while, breakfast and lunch at conferences were like that for me. I’d go to a lot of conferences, but early on in my conference going days, I’d had some uncomfortable, awkward experiences trying to connect with people I didn’t know—not a natural strength of mine—so I decided for years that I wasn’t going to risk it…I’d just eat on my own. Turns out, that was an overreaction and prevented me from experiencing a lot of potential upside in connecting with new people at conferences, which is kind of one of the big reasons to go.

So, I decided to try some small experiments to test whether I could have a good experience in that setting. I needed to replace the “Conference breakfasts and lunches are just too scary. They’re not worth it.” story with something more useful. I’m still not super comfortable walking into a ballroom full of round tables and hundreds of people, but I’m not hiding from it anymore, like my ducks in their little house.


This also makes me think of all those times I’ve seen a leader do something really well-intentioned for their team or their company and then having that end up backfiring really poorly for them. Usually, it comes down to some blind spot about how team members value different things than the leader or not thinking through the side effects of a change.


Mmm, what’s an example of that?


One example that comes to mind happened towards the end of a big company all hands meeting several years ago. Most of the meeting time had been spent celebrating this big successful launch of a new product for the company. And the leaders in that meeting were sharing stories about how Wall Street was all excited and customers were really pleased with the new product.

Towards the end, as the CEO was starting to wrap the meeting, he expressed his gratitude for the efforts the company had made to deliver this big outcome. He then said something like “I’d like to point out one example among many of you who put their whole heart and soul into this release. Then he asked a VP of Product to stand up… for this story, we’ll refer to her as Veda, and said, “Veda really went the extra mile. As some of you may have heard, in the first week of the release, she got on our user forums and offered to personally trouble-shoot any issues our customers had with this newly launched product. Now, Veda is not in charge of customer support, so she was willing to work outside of her normal role, and our customers really appreciated that 1:1 help from someone so high up in the company. Thank you, Veda.” Everyone applauded, and Veda looked a little embarrassed, and then the CEO wrapped the meeting.


It sounds like the CEO was trying to do a good thing there, to acknowledge the extra effort put in by so many and share an example of someone going “above and beyond,” but I can totally see how this could have lots of unintended consequences.


Definitely. First of all, there were thousands of people who had put in long hours for this release, but the CEO, probably just because this was the one they were aware of, called out an extremely well compensated VP rather than seeking out an example of somebody who was maybe more representative of the rest of the company who had gone above and beyond. And that VP had done something well outside of her scope of responsibilities, which may have been great, to work outside of your area of responsibilities, but could very well have broken all the customer support policies and procedures, and set expectations with customers that if they complained loud enough, VPs would step in and fix stuff, and it’s far outside of the normal approach to prioritizing work. So I could see all kinds of unintended consequences even of this Vice President’s behavior. And the biggest thing is, it celebrated the heroic efforts made by this VP, who I think had put in something like 90 hours that first week, rather than celebrating the quiet excellence of other leaders who released products at the company that didn’t require heroism to succeed because they’d been planned and executed and delivered effectively. This was a real blind spot for that CEO, and this story is just one example of many that created this kind of reinforcing feedback loop of rewarding heroism, leading to people creating a bit of chaos so they could heroically pull their team out of it and get celebrated, rewarded, and promoted.


Yeah, and I think there’s a broader lesson there not just for leaders. It’s easy to get fixated on a problem and how you might solve it. Like I saw that it was hot, and my ducks didn’t have much shade or protection from hawks. A canopy would solve that. Done. But I didn’t think through what else could happen in addition to solving the problem. I didn’t think about how my solution could create new problems. I probably could have done a little research on others’ experiences with canopies, and I would have quickly discovered that wind is a big deal.

I might still have bought the canopy. After all, it was a good solution to the two problems right in front of me. But I would have also taken steps to mitigate the side effects. I would have bought stronger stakes and maybe some sand bags. Maybe even a canopy with a vent at the top.


Sounds like you’ve learned a lot about canopies—probably one of many things– as you launch on this new journey of things you never knew you needed to know.


Yeah.  I’ve learned more about canopies than I ever intended.

But, zooming out from ducks and canopies, since that’s pretty specific and not the problem most of our listeners are struggling with, it makes me think about how I could have used the tool that we talked about back in episode 130: the 5 levels of resistance from the Theory of Constraints. We talked about it there as resistance and overcoming resistance, But you can also use the 5 levels, and we do all the time, for building alignment or just for testing an idea.  So, let’s play that out.

Level 1: Is there a problem worth solving here?

Yeah, it’s hot and there are some big hawks that could grab one of my little ducks from the pool. I’d like to address that.

Level 2: What’s a solution that’ll fix the problem?

A canopy would provide quick shade and protection from aerial predators. So far, so good. Now it gets more interesting… We get to level three.

Level 3: What are the possible side effects, and can we prevent or mitigate them?

This is where I’d do a little research if I were thinking this through logically, and I’d learn about canopies and wind and the ways people address that. And then, if I found a way to address it, we’d move on to level 4.

Level 4: What are the obstacles to implementing this thing?

I need to have money to spend on all this stuff. I’d have to find the right equipment, and there are fewer stores out here. I’d probably need to get some help doing some of these tasks. But the solution is within my budget, things are available in some of the stores out here, and I do have friends and family willing to help. So I’m good at level four.

Finally, level 5: Who else needs to collaborate but might be on board?

I wasn’t thinking about the ducks. If they don’t like the solution, it doesn’t matter how good it is for shade and protection. I somehow have to obtain their collaboration, and I can’t do it by giving a presentation and talking them into it. So I have a tricky change management problem.


I have to know… How did things end up for the ducks? You hinted that maybe things were OK. Are they still hiding? Do they have a new canopy?


Well, the canopy’s still a no-go. We patched up the tears from the barbed wire and we reinstalled it with big strong stakes and weights, and I walked out with the canopy cover in my arms and the ducks totally lost their minds again just seeing it. It was like chaos in the duck run, with ducks flying everywhere.  And they can’t really fly, so they just, like, flap their wings and jump off the ground.  Just seeing that was enough.   It’s possible they’re totally afraid of the color blue now.  I haven’t tested that yet.

But we did get the ducks to rediscover their pool. My wife and I finally just picked up the calmest of the ducks and put them in the pool. And then they realized it was safe and remembered how much they enjoy water. And, two minutes later, all 8 ducks were splashing around in the water like nothing had happened. They’re still not swimming as much as they did a week ago, and certainly not as much as they did back at our old place where it was really familiar, but they’re starting to venture out a little further from their house, and actually when I walked over to my office this afternoon, they were swimming.

So, I think there’s a lesson in there, too, about safe experiments to test something you’re afraid of, like conference meals in my case.


Yeah, I love this example of finding inspiration all around us in our day-to-day tasks in our lives, and we can find inspiration and wisdom all over the place if we’re looking for it!

By the way, if you normally listen to our podcasts (like I listen to most of mine), you might want to check out the YouTube video for this episode. Because we’ve included some actual footage of Richard’s ducks and their progression from hiding in their house to rediscovering their pool.

Thanks everyone, for tuning in!

Last updated