61

Looking for a phrase/metaphor describing a situation where a proposed solution, though valid, is targeted for one of many problems in an entity plagued by so many problems as to render the individual solution unimportant. An example would be discussing improving the energy efficiency in the kitchen of a building that is condemned or on the verge of falling apart; though the methods for improving the kitchen might be totally valid, they're of little practical concern as they'd make no contribution to the long term viability of the building.

Something like "a drop in the bucket" but which emphasizes that the "drop" is well-conceived or -intentioned.


EDIT:

The answers here have been fantastic (and hilarious), though I think the phrase that best fits my request was actually listed by @user9383 in her/his question (not in the answer but in the question itself):

Fixing a leaky faucet in a burning building.

This phrase perfectly captures both aspects of my request:

  1. The intentions/method have merit: in general, leaky faucets need to be fixed.

  2. Despite this, the effort is wasted due much bigger problems: despite the inherent merit of the faucet-fixing, the ensuing destruction prevents the realization of any substantial benefit.

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    The phrases "putting lipstick on a pig" and "polishing a turd" come to mind... – Andrew Leach Aug 22 '16 at 14:20
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    "Rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic" is a similar expression of futility. – JHCL Aug 22 '16 at 14:25
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    I was going to say something about a finger and a dike, it seems that (at least according to the stories) this is supposed to actually work, so I guess that's not very helpful... – SamB Aug 23 '16 at 1:53
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    @Paparazzi I would simply say that those situations you describe are not examples of solutions that are "rendered unimportant." I do not state that all "fixes" are useless in a situation where they won't have a lasting effect. Installing a vent in a kitchen so you could cook would be of immediate practical benefit. Adding insulation and doubled-paned windows to a room in a building slated for demolition is not. – Richard Border Aug 23 '16 at 17:51
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    Only heard this once a number of decades ago -- "...painting with gold over rust." – user2338816 Aug 25 '16 at 10:22

20 Answers 20

161

Rearrange the deck chairs on the TitanicWiktionary

To do something pointless or insignificant that will soon be overtaken by events, or that contributes nothing to the solution of a current problem.

  • 5
    "Polishing the brass on the Titanic" is also a popular one. – Jason Hutchinson Aug 22 '16 at 17:38
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    Best response. I like and use this expression. – user191160 Aug 22 '16 at 22:52
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    Presumably, this refers especially to doing so at some point after it has struck the iceberg? – SamB Aug 23 '16 at 1:56
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    @SamB Or at some point before, by a time traveller who believes that the butterfly effect will save the ship... Who can say? – user143977 Aug 23 '16 at 16:49
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    @Keeta The saying has the sense that rearranging the deck chairs or polishing the brass would be fine and useful things to do—if the ship weren't sinking. If they were meaningless to begin with, sinking or not, the saying doesn't have its full meaning. – KRyan Aug 24 '16 at 20:44
42

In software development, this is sometimes colloquially referred to a "turd polishing". Here's a definition from Urban Dictionary you might find appropriate to your situation:

An engineering term referring to the process of examining a product, process, or system for defects, fixing the defects, then repeating as new defects appear, instead of re-engineering the solution with fewer defects.

And in context:

"In other words, you attack your firewall / software / website / whatever from the outside, identify a flaw in it, fix the flaw, and then go back to looking. One of my programmer buddies refers to this process as 'turd polishing' because, as he says, it doesn't make your code any less smelly in the long run but management might enjoy its improved, shiny, appearance in the short term."

And on the topic of software development...

If your question is specifically about software development (programming), you may also be interested in the related concept of "software debt", where the degree of bugginess in your application is seen as a kind of debt taken on for development expediency, but which eventually has to be paid off.

  • Seems a bit of an understatement for OP's use-case... – SamB Aug 23 '16 at 3:10
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    One of the few times I have ever upvoted an Urban Dictionary answer. – OldBunny2800 Aug 24 '16 at 21:25
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    Not just software - we use this in my shop for putting an irrelevant 'professional' finish on any profoundly stupid or misdirected copy or illustration or video or website we can't talk the client out of wasting their money on. – StoneyB on hiatus Aug 24 '16 at 22:25
  • We don't use the term "turd polishing" in software development and the concept described as "software debt" is actually called "technical debt" – Brian Leeming Aug 26 '16 at 12:21
22

putting a bandaid on a broken leg

Emphasizes that the effort is well-intentioned but ill-conceived, as requested by original poster.

eg: https://www.allenandunwin.com/browse/books/general-books/biography-autobiography/Band-Aid-for-a-Broken-Leg-Damien-Brown-9781743315569

some other variations here: http://www.thefreedictionary.com/uselessness

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    The variant I've seen is "Band-Aid on a bullet wound". – chrylis -on strike- Aug 23 '16 at 12:09
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    @chrylis Depending on the size of the wound and the bandage, that might actually make a significant difference. – WBT Aug 23 '16 at 16:44
  • @WBT a band-aid is specifically a small bandage, usually 1-3 centimeters, and is strictly for small cuts and abrasions that don't reach further than the skin. – Benubird Aug 25 '16 at 9:03
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    @Benubird If you're being very specific, BAND-AID is a brand of adhesive bandages sold by Johnson & Johnson. While smaller sizes are more commonly useful and therefore popular, it's a good idea to keep some of the larger sizes (e.g. here & here) around for larger area issues. Also, cuts deeper than the skin can benefit from having something pulling the sides together to help close the wound. It's still unlikely to noticeably help a broken leg. – WBT Aug 25 '16 at 13:55
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    I've heard similar variations, like "aspirin for a broken arm". However, the connotation I get from this is that it's used to signify that the proposed solution isn't actually a solution, because it's treating the symptoms and not treating the problem, so I'm not sure it really fits here. – Dave DeLong Aug 25 '16 at 15:38
17

Papering over the cracksCambridge

to hide problems, especially arguments between people, in order to make a situation seem better than it really is
"She tried to paper over the cracks, but I could see that the relationship was failing."

The house is falling apart; hanging new wallpaper certainly makes it more pleasant to live in, but does nothing to remedy the root issue.

17

Buying a new saddle for a dead horse.

I really like the titanic answer, in IT we tend to use more the dead horse metaphor for this kind of problems.

Well, the original is Flogging, which in modern idiom became kicking, which is just as useless but also pretty negative. He wants a nicer version that underlines that it is a good solution (which kicking would not be), but pretty useless in that moment, so I added the buying a new saddle, which is pretty good gesture usually, but not useful in this situation. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flogging_a_dead_horse

  • 2
    Please consider adding sources to substantiate the answer. You can also have a look at the tour page and the help center to find out about good answers. – Helmar Aug 23 '16 at 11:05
  • @mirba, consider incorporating your comment into the answer itself--I like this phrase a lot and think you're answer could be a great one. – Richard Border Aug 24 '16 at 12:45
  • "Flogging a dead horse" is a different thing. You are meant to imagine that the horse was alive when the flogging started, but was killed by some combination of the physical abuse and previous overwork (it is easier than you would think to work a horse to death) and the person doing the flogging has failed to notice. It's not just that the action is futile, but that the person doing the flogging made it futile. It's used for arguments, where someone is belaboring a point after everyone else involved has given up. (IMNSHO the WP article misses the point.) – zwol Aug 25 '16 at 14:52
13

How about "bailing out the ocean"? Implies that what you're doing is a good fix for a small problem, but won't work as the actual issues it too big.

I have a mental image of water rushing through cracks in a dam while someone carefully plugs a small hole, but while I feel like that's the memory of an expression, it isn't coming to mind, so maybe not. I'm sure there's a saying somewhere to do with plugging leaks...

11

A band-aid solution.

From the Cambridge English Dictionary:

a temporary solution that does not deal with the cause of a problem

From the Band-Aid brand adhesive bandage, intended for minor injuries.

  • 6
    This doesn't capture the intent of the expression. The solution may be perfectly valid and correct - it's just that the problem it's solving is not particularly significant. A band-aid-solution may be a solution to a larger problem, but is a purely-temporary solution which will require a more comprehensive solution later. Band-aid solutions in fact are frequently used for major problems, because it's more important to patch things temporarily and keep the business/project/person alive than to achieve the perfect solution some time later when the business/project/person is already dead. – Graham Aug 23 '16 at 15:11
8

You can use the phrase:

The surgery was a success but the patient died.

Used in this way, you can show that even if the job was done properly, it does not address the full scope of the problem.

8

You can call that

putting lipstick on a pig

The fix is the lipstick, the pig is the system. Even after the fix, the system is still ugly, to the point that the fix made no difference.

Lipstick on a Pig at Wikipedia, Urban Dictionary

6

Exercise in futility, though it doesn't exactly express the part about being a limited solution.

5

How about

Shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted

Keeping the stable door closed is clearly a good idea, but is now rendered pointless because the horse has already escaped.

I actually prefer the deckchairs on the titanic one, but as the OP didn't seem to like that one I thought I'd offer another alternative.

  • One might argue that this has a different overall meaning, more like "That ship has sailed". To abuse OP's metaphor the energy efficiency improvements are moot as it won't have a useful effect. In comparison, talking about dealing with the termite problem is shutting the barn door after the horses have bolted as the building is already eaten up and about to fall down anyway. It's too late to stop the results of the termite investation. – MrDoom Aug 22 '16 at 16:10
  • I agree, as I said I think the Titanic one is the best established phrase suggested so far. – Joseph Rogers Aug 22 '16 at 16:17
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    I don't think the definition fits. "Shutting the stable door" is what the horse's owner should have done in the first place, to prevent the horse from bolting. I.e. things would not have gone wrong if the solution had been used earlier. If the kitchen is a wreck because it wasn't made energy efficient, then it would be appropriate. – A. Giesbrecht Aug 25 '16 at 14:17
4

If you are looking for a metaphor, "a golden drop in a black universe", though not idiomatic, is metaphorical and seems to fit perfectly.

  • "The building is falling to pieces. I wouldn't spend my time and money trying to rebuild the facade. It would be a golden drop in a black universe."
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    I've never heard this phrase before. Google gives one result: this page. Not exactly a common idiom... – AndyT Aug 22 '16 at 15:16
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    @AndyT This phrase is not idiomatic. The OP asks for a phrase or metaphor. This is a metaphorical phrase. No references as it's an original phrase. – Centaurus Aug 22 '16 at 15:42
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    @AndyT We've got a one-hit google search! \o/ – tomsmeding Aug 22 '16 at 20:04
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    +1 for an original answer. it is nice to see a human in a sea of searchbots. – james turner Aug 22 '16 at 20:18
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    @jamesturner - A human in a sea of searchbots is like a golden drop in a black universe... – AndyT Aug 23 '16 at 14:10
2

Saving the Tootsie Rolls. I used to work with someone who would accuse people of the following: "The store is burning down, and you're trying to save the Tootsie Rolls." The proposed solution -- saving the Tootsie Rolls -- which is, in a sense, valid, clearly targets "one of many problems in an entity plagued by so many problems as to render the individual solution unimportant." Unfortunately, I can't find any references for this piece of wisdom, but I have remembered and relied upon it for many years: Don't save the Tootsie Rolls, save the store!

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    A similar anecdote was a colleague who was attending a meeting where the discussion had degenerated, so one person held up their hand until someone asked what was the matter, to which was replied "I'm just saving my watch, the BS's getting too deep." – Philip Oakley Aug 25 '16 at 13:11
2

Although not an idiom in the traditional sense, consider throwing back the starfish. It comes from a story, one version of which follows:

One day an old man was walking down the beach just before dawn. In the distance he saw a young man picking up stranded starfish and throwing them back into the sea. As the old man approached the young man, he asked, "Why do you spend so much energy doing what seems to be a waste of time?" The young man explained that the stranded starfish would die if left in the morning sun. The old man exclaimed, "But there must be thousands of starfish. How can your efforts make any difference?" The young man looked down at the starfish in his hand and as he threw it to safety in the sea, he said," It makes a difference to this one!" - Grain of Rice Project

There are a number of variants to this story. Wikipedia attributes the original to Loren Eiseley as part of an essay entitled "The Star Thrower".

The story has been adapted and retold by motivational speakers and on internet sites, often without attribution, since at least the mid 1980s. - Wikipedia

The idea in this popular adaptation is that the efforts are important to the immediate focus, even though many others are neglected for (in this case) lack of resources - so many that the scale of the neglect dwarfs that of the fix. The fix, however, is well-intentioned and well-conceived, as the question requests.

The metaphor has also been used in a negative sense:

Without new fishing practices and policy, those same starfish surely would wash ashore again. Worse, the rescuers would have tricked themselves into believing they were actually solving the problem. - By Rich Tafel, Social Entrepreneurs Must Stop Throwing Starfish

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    You can't use something idiomatically if no one has ever heard of it. – G. Ann - SonarSource Team Aug 22 '16 at 17:38
  • @G.Ann-SonarSourceTeam Thank you for your comment. I've edited my answer to include a reference to its circulation. – Lawrence Aug 22 '16 at 18:01
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    Throwing back the starfish is almost the opposite of what the OP is looking for. The act of throwing back a starfish is worthwhile even if the problem is huge. This is not the case for the OP's solution ... that problem is more like throwing starfish back into a poisoned ocean, so it will die anyhow. – GreenAsJade Aug 23 '16 at 9:43
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    @GreenAsJade An even more apt metaphor would be throwing back a star fish when 10-30 other people are catching them and moving them onto land. In other words, it's still a useful contribution, but it's not approaching the crux of the problem. – jpaugh Aug 26 '16 at 19:40
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    @GreenAsJade Thank you for your comment. I see your point now and have added a negative use of the metaphor. – Lawrence Aug 26 '16 at 23:12
1

One of the oldest (I'd guess), that applies to fixing problems and host of other futilities & irrelevancies is:

You are casting pearls before swine.

This metaphor depicts an attempt to use something beautiful and refined to alleviate the condition of something utterly incapable of such beauty or refinement.

Casting pearls before swine solves nothing, is a wasted effort, and only makes the whole situation more upsetting or disappointing.

A fix as you propose is casting pearls before swine.

  • 1
    This phrase refers specifically to communicating with other people, who are outside the target audience, or who otherwise have no interest. Like, presenting a mathematically rigorous proof about knot theory to a group of accountants. They'll do well to understand it on a basic level, much less understand it's deeper implications. (It also has an obvious negative connotation toward said audience.) – jpaugh Aug 26 '16 at 19:44
  • @jpaugh, "... one of many problems in an entity plagued by so many problems ..." renders and "entity" that has a source — which is (esp. in this case) a person/s. The bad system is hoisted upon the problem-solvers, but their solution is pearls before the swine that are the system builders / owners. Maybe I am stretching the model of concepts here – New Alexandria Aug 26 '16 at 20:33
  • As I understand it, the phrase specifically conveyed the idea that the object (i.e. swine) were somehow deficient (e.g. unable to comprehend, apathetic, etc) as compared with the subject (i.e. yourself). Applying this to a system or concept looses some of the meaning. – jpaugh Aug 26 '16 at 21:35
1

Put one's finger in the dike

http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/dyke:

Attempt to stem the advance of something undesirable.

From a story of a small Dutch boy who saved his community from flooding, by placing his finger in a hole in a dike.

Today, many people view sticking one's finger in the dike negatively, i.e., as a valid proposed solution to a problem, but a solution that targets "one of many problems in an entity plagued by so many problems as to render the individual solution unimportant." Sticking one's finger in the dike merely forestalls the disaster to follow absent real solutions to real problems.

1

See also spitting in the ocean, with a particular emphasis on the way it is used in this particular article.

"It's spitting in the ocean but at least they're doing something," said Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users co-founder Ann Livingston.

"It's a very, very, humble, tiny thing but it's good, and I'm glad they're doing it."

0

The expression penny wise and pound foolish may fit the bill here:

The phrase is also occasionally used for being very careful about unimportant matters and careless about important ones.

The normal sense is to be tight with small amounts of money, but careless with large ones, however conceptually the same thing could apply to decisions.

The example in the question of improving the energy efficiency in the kitchen of a building that is condemned is similar. Care is being taken over energy efficiency, but the problem of the building being condemned is ignored.

-2

"You can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear" comes to mind.

Though his intentions were good, Bob's plan to paint the dilapidated house was an attempt to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. All he would end up with is a dilapidated, albeit painted, house.

  • 1
    Correct me if I'm mistaken, but somehow I don't think it's fitting here. See idioms.thefreedictionary.com/… or dictionary.com/browse/… – NVZ Aug 22 '16 at 15:10
  • I think it might as long as the underlying problem matches. It doesn't seem to fit the example in the OP's question. – Helmar Aug 22 '16 at 15:17
  • @NVZ: Your first link supports your contention, since Bob could use the highest quality paint there is. Your second link, however, doesn't really support your contention, since Bob is attempting to do the impossible, whether he uses high quality paint or not. In other words, one cannot make a model home out of a dilapidated house, even if you give it a coat of paint. Don – rhetorician Aug 22 '16 at 15:22
-3

I've heard this called the bike-shed effect (or simply bikeshedding) where people focus their efforts on the small or easier tasks instead of working on the harder parts of the problem.

From wikipedia:

In the third chapter, "High Finance, or the Point of Vanishing Interest", Parkinson writes about a fictional finance committee meeting with a three-item agenda: The first is the signing of a £10 million contract to build a reactor, the second a proposal to build a £350 bicycle shed for the clerical staff, and the third proposes £21 a year to supply refreshments for the Joint Welfare Committee.

  1. The £10 million number is too big and too technical, and it passes in two and a half minutes.

  2. The bicycle shed is a subject understood by the board, and the amount within their life experience, so committee member Mr Softleigh says that an aluminium roof is too expensive and they should use asbestos. Mr Holdfast wants galvanised iron. Mr Daring questions the need for the shed at all. Holdfast disagrees. Parkinson then writes: "The debate is fairly launched. A sum of £350 is well within everybody's comprehension. Everyone can visualise a bicycle shed. Discussion goes on, therefore, for forty-five minutes, with the possible result of saving some £50. Members at length sit back with a feeling of accomplishment."

  3. Parkinson then described the third agenda item, writing: "There may be members of the committee who might fail to distinguish between asbestos and galvanised iron, but every man there knows about coffee – what it is, how it should be made, where it should be bought – and whether indeed it should be bought at all. This item on the agenda will occupy the members for an hour and a quarter, and they will end by asking the secretary to procure further information, leaving the matter to be decided at the next meeting."

Jeff Atwood talks about this on his Coding Horror blog:

Although discussion can meander in any topic, the probability of meandering goes up as the technical difficulty of the topic goes down. After all, the greater the technical difficulty, the fewer participants can really follow what's going on. Those who can are likely to be the most experienced developers, who have already taken part in such discussions thousands of times before, and know what sort of behavior is likely to lead to a consensus everyone can live with. Thus, consensus is hardest to achieve in technical questions that are simple to understand and easy to have an opinion about, and in "soft" topics such as organization, publicity, funding, etc. People can participate in those arguments forever, because there are no qualifications necessary for doing so, no clear ways to decide (even afterward) if a decision was right or wrong, and because simply outwaiting other discussants is sometimes a successful tactic.

The principle that the amount of discussion is inversely proportional to the complexity of the topic has been around for a long time, and is known informally as the Bikeshed Effect.

For your context, you might also say the person's efforts are sisyphean.

  • 8
    Bike-shedding captures the first part of the request (namely, "majoring on the minor" or "making mountains out of molehills") but doesn't appear to address the case of the underlying failing project. Bike-shedding can occur during while discussing either healthy or doomed projects. – George Cummins Aug 22 '16 at 16:59
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    Bike shedding is focusing on minor details you understand and ignoring the complicated issues you don't understand. Not at all what the questioner wants. – WernerCD Aug 22 '16 at 20:57
  • 1
    Bike-shedding Chernobyl? – SamB Aug 23 '16 at 2:38

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