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I'm wondering if there is a well-known, documented and succinct proverb that matches the idea of:

  • Too many managers or departments overseeing a single task
  • The task fails because there are too many overseeing the single task
  • Nobody feels responsible because every party can blame the other party

My bad memory tells me that I once heard a proverb that may have been something like "A horse with two masters starves." I am wanting to put it in a professional presentation and don't want to embarrass myself by misquoting the proverb, if it even is one.

We're looking for long answers that provide some explanation and context. Don't just give a one-line answer; explain why your answer is right, ideally with citations. Answers that don't include explanations may be removed.

  • Would this be similar to the concept of having everyone pull in different directions? Is it too many pullers or the directions they are pulling that is the problem? – Guy Schalnat Mar 23 '18 at 17:37
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    The scientific term for this is "diffusion of responsibility," for what that's worth. – blahdiblah Mar 23 '18 at 17:50
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    It's not quite an answer, but there's the related term "bikeshedding", where a large committee of managers without the relevant engineering background spend more time designing and redesigning the bike shed than the core safety and power generation systems of the nuclear plant they're building. (And if you think that is an answer, lemme know, I'll post it as one.) – Nic Hartley Mar 23 '18 at 19:39
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    @Guy schalnat - this is more of the concept of that there's no pull at all bc everyone else doesn't need to pull because everyone else is pulling. But since everyone thinks this way, there is no pull at all. It's where all of the managers involved have no management and so nothing gets done because they unassigned responsibility to themselves - for valid reasons even. But if they all knew they were all thinking this way, they would step up. But there is an assumption that everyone else is getting that work done. – Tallima Mar 24 '18 at 0:23
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    There is Russian proverb "Seven nannies have a child without an eye." or "A child, looked after by seven nannies is without one eye." but I've checked and it seems English equivalent is "Too many cooks spoil the broth." – Heidel Mar 26 '18 at 7:56
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There is:

Too many cooks spoil the broth

The Free Dictionary says of the idiom “Too many cooks”:

Too many people trying to control, influence, or work on something, with the quality of the final product suffering as a result. A shortened version of the full phrase, "Too many cooks spoil the broth/stew/soup." A: "We've got my boss, his boss, the assistant manager, a freelance consultant, and the head of IT all involved, and it's turning into a complete disaster!" B: "It sounds to me like there are too many cooks."

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    I'm way more familiar with "Too many cooks in the kitchen", but apparently that is less common... books.google.com/ngrams/… – lucasvw Mar 23 '18 at 17:00
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    I think this is the best option available in English, although to me it means more that too many people are pulling the project in all directions, rather than no one taking responsibility. The proverbial broth ends up over-salted with a chaotic mix of flavors, not neglected. – MissMonicaE Mar 23 '18 at 17:28
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    or "...the stew" or "...the soup," etc. I've heard all of those in the wild. – T.J. Crowder Mar 26 '18 at 7:22
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    @lucasvw complaining that there are too many cooks in the kitchen only makes sense if you already know the expression about too many cooks spoiling the broth(/soup/stew/etc.) as without the prior knowledge of that expression, surely kitchens are precisely where cooks are meant to be. – Jon Hanna Mar 26 '18 at 14:43
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    @JonHanna I disagree. If you've ever been in a kitchen with too many people in it, you'll understand the phrase. It's hot, noisy, and nearly impossible to accomplish making anything. It doesn't really matter what you're making. – lucasvw Mar 26 '18 at 18:01
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This is by no means as good as the "Too many cooks" expression, but "design by committee" is a pejorative term when too many people on a committee are counterproductive in achieving its goals. Because there too many opinions and contributions the result is usually a big mess due to this.

Design by committee

  • Bother - I missed this and wrote up a longer version of exactly the same answer. – Criggie Mar 24 '18 at 23:02
  • @Criggie Sorry, your answer probably would have been better as my explanation is only one sentence. – Zebrafish Mar 25 '18 at 3:09
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If you're looking for a succinct term,"If everyone is responsible, no-one is responsible" works very well in a professional setting. More so than a proverb in my opinion.

Alternatively, you could refer to the proper term of "Diffusion of Responsibility."

  • This seems like a better match than the more well known "too many cooks" idiom, which is more about individual contributors getting in each other's way. – Barmar Mar 26 '18 at 21:45
  • I agree. A proverb might not quite fit the intended message. Diffusion of responsibility is a succinct term. – Tallima Mar 27 '18 at 2:19
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too many chiefs and not enough indians free dict

There are too many people trying to manage or organize something, and not enough people willing to actually do the work. (This phrase may be considered offensive or inappropriate [baaaa!] in the United States.) Everyone wants to be the brains of this project, but there are too many chiefs and not enough Indians!

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    Depending on the nature of the presentation, the non-politically-correct flavor to this could cause problems, but I like it because it specifically speaks to the in-charge aspect. – NH. Mar 23 '18 at 15:53
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    I think this doesn't quite capture what's in the question. The problem here isn't that there are too many involved parties, but that there are simply too few people assigned to actually accomplishing things, and too many people assigned to making sure those few do their job. – stannius Mar 23 '18 at 17:09
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    A better alternative might be "too many generals not enough soldiers". – Ocie Mitchell Mar 23 '18 at 22:28
  • @stannius Umm, OP didn't say anything about workers. OP writes only about managers' responsibility. – kubanczyk Mar 25 '18 at 13:43
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    "Too many people responsible for a task" does also not imply that these people aren't doing the actual work. – rackandboneman Mar 25 '18 at 16:13
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If you feel like longform, there is this classic:

There was a task to be done, and Everyone thought that Someone would do it. Anyone could have done it, but Noone did. Someone got angry about that because it was Everyone's job, but Noone realized that Everyone wouldn't do it. In the end Everyone blamed Someone when Noone did what Anyone should have done.

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"A two-captains ship is doomed to sink." - Egyptian Proverb.

We're looking for long answers that provide some explanation and context. Don't just give a one-line answer; explain why your answer is right, ideally with citations. Answers that don't include explanations may be removed.

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    Not every Egyptian proverb is an English idiom. – Dmitry Grigoryev Mar 26 '18 at 8:01
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    I like this expression. – Zebrafish Mar 26 '18 at 9:24
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    @DmitryGrigoryev: Fair enough as far as English.SE is concerned, but the proverb's meaning is clear enough that OP can use it on a presentation slide that addresses the exact same problematic situation. This is how proverbs eventually take hold in a different language (as has recently been the case with "not my circus, not my monkeys") – Flater Mar 26 '18 at 10:51
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    english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContent/32/98/137863/Folk/Folk-Arts/… says this is the equivalent of the too many cooks proverb. It could imply argument or lack of order or diffusion of responsibility. Overall, I like this one best of our what I've heard, but it's probably been heard of less by my audience. – Tallima Mar 27 '18 at 2:14
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The first thing that came to mind was "too many cooks spoil the broth", which has already been answered here.

However, I'm intrigued by your third bullet point:

  • Nobody feels responsible because every party can blame the other party.

This is known as the bystander effect.

Essentially, if many people are present, individuals will not be incentivized to do the needed work (e.g. call 911) because they assume the others will take care (or will already have taken care) of it. The more people are present, the less every individual feels reponsible to do the needed work.

However, there's no proverbial way to refer to this as far as I'm aware. At best, you can point at the real life psychological effect, e.g.:

This project is liable to succumb to the bystander effect.

But this requires the other person to be aware of the bystander effect in the first place.

It's also not a proverb, which you were specifically looking for.

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Nobody feels responsible

Because the project falls between two stools. That’s the nearest I can find to an actual proverb, though there are other ways to get your point across.

“Too many cooks” doesn’t really work

As MissMonicaE says, the phrase “too many cooks spoil the broth” means that too many people are pulling the project in all directions. This is not quite the same as no one taking responsibility. “The proverbial broth ends up over-salted with a chaotic mix of flavors, not neglected.” So that proverb doesn’t quite match what you’re looking for.

“Everyone’s responsible” isn’t a proverb

A less elegant phrase, perhaps lacking in the necessary use of metaphor to make it count as a proverb, but nonetheless a good English saying, is when everyone is responsible, no one is responsible or everyone’s responsibility/job is no one’s responsibility/job. See answers by JeffUK and AviD which expand on this.

protected by tchrist Mar 25 '18 at 14:26

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