jml's notebook

Too much steering, not enough pedalling

For a while now, I've been trying to think of a replacement for the phrase that begins "too many chiefs", as that phrase is way too racially loaded to be useful in any conversation.

When casting around, a lot of people suggested "too many cooks spoil the broth" or its variants. This doesn't quite get to the heart of the matter.

The original phrase exists as a short-hand to describe a dysfunction where there are too many people directing work and not enough people doing work. "Too many cooks" is more about how some projects are harmed by having too many people work on them. If you try hard, you can bend the phrase to be about conflicting directions—maybe one cook thinks it needs to be sweeter and the other more savoury—but that's not what you want in an aphorism.

The best replacement I've managed to come up with is "too much steering, not enough pedalling". Anyone who has ridden a bicycle knows that if you're on a bike and you don't pedal, you stop. If you're not pedalling fast enough and you steer too much, you fall over. Or, you don't fall over, and instead inefficiently zigzag your way to your destination.

I imagine a cartoon with four or five people in suits sitting on the handlebars, jostling for grip and arguing about which way to go, with a lone cyclist on the seat, pedalling away as fast as they can, exhausted and dripping with sweat. The caption reads "Why aren't we getting anywhere?"

The answer, of course, is too much steering, not enough pedalling.