Spotting the Iceberg of Ignorance
Recently, I tripped across the Iceberg of Ignorance in this post by the Corporate Rebels. I agree with their message of melting the iceberg with humility. However, I also think shared ownership would help with the iceberg.
The iceberg is the work of consultant Sydney Yoshida, who was working with Japanese car manufacturer Calsonic. Yoshida’s model suggests frontline workers know 100% of the problems in a company, 74% by supervisors, 9% by middle management, and 4% by executives.
I don’t know if Yoshida’s numbers are accurate, however I think they’re representative. The 4% and 9% numbers at the senior levels of the iceberg don’t strike me as unusual. I see this all the time in companies, and I see many good and bad reasons for it being this way.
Ideally, executive leaders are aware of 100% of the problems in their organization. The challenge is in knowing which problems to pay the closest attention to and whether they’re even visible to them. Too much information and you won’t see the problems. Too little information and it’s simply not available to you.
Making them visible
Let’s assume your company is a ship speeding across the Atlantic at night. The ship’s Captain is the executive leader, and the spotter watching for icebergs is the front-line worker.
The spotter is aware of 100% of the icebergs around the ship. The spotter will sound the alarm for icebergs which are a direct threat to the ship (i.e. they are in the path of the ship.)
The captain might also want the spotter informing him of the presence of other non-threatening icebergs in the area. An iceberg off to the side of the ship’s travel will not threaten the ship. However, where you have one iceberg you might have others.
When an iceberg is a direct threat to the ship, the captain needs to make a decision and alter their course. Worse, case the Captain needs to stop the ship to avoid a collision.
It is also useful to know of non-threatening icebergs in the area. For example, the Captain may want to slow the ship allowing more time to respond if they spot an iceberg directly in their path.
Companies are much like the ship speeding through an ice field. We use problem logs and escalations to sound the alarm. Escalations provide senior leaders with the opportunity to make decisions and intervene to avert collisions.
For every problem escalated, though, there will be many more which are not escalated. Sometimes, in hindsight, you might realize it would have been advantageous to escalate. However, for the bulk of problems, you will not see the need to escalate them.
Now, imagine for a moment, what might happen if the iceberg spotter was fearful of reporting bad news. What if the spotter is worried he will be held accountable if the ship has to alter course or stop. If this were true, how many of the icebergs do you think the spotter would report?
While that might sound like a rhetorical question, it is happening in companies everywhere.
I once worked as a Project Manager and submitted a status report declaring my project red (i.e. in trouble). We had encountered some significant issues and no longer had an achievable schedule. Further, we didn’t know if we could deliver within our budget.
My manager, would not let me publish this report as-is. She was concerned it would only bring unnecessary attention to our project. I was told it is better to keep my head down as I worked to get the project back on track.
It’s been years since this happened, so I don’t remember many of the details. What I do remember, is our struggles continued. I imagine from the senior leader perspective; they may not have been aware or understood the struggles.
Senior leadership and visibility of problems
My rule of thumb for dealing with problems is you always want to solve them at the lowest level possible. For most problems, addressing them at the lowest level possible is both optimal and appropriate for several reasons.
The front-line workers know the work best. With good boundaries, vision and support from leadership, they will come up with the best solutions to problems. When the front-line workers are blocked by something out of their control, they need to escalate and get support.
There is also the simple math to consider. There are far fewer people in senior roles compared to front-line workers. If Senior Leadership had detailed visibility and involvement to 100% of the problems they would be overwhelmed.
There is a delicate balance to strike. Without visibility to problems, things might appear easy to senior leaders, despite the reality of the challenges. Even if most of the problems are minor by themselves, are you suffering a slow painful death by a thousand cuts?
You will not get useful information with accountability
For many companies, they try to improve on the visibility of problems through better accountabilities. This approach often involves lots of processes and best practices. More often than not, the people are held accountable for following the process.
When the focus is on holding people accountable for following a process you’re going to hide problems. In holding people accountable problems will seemingly tend to fall between the people and teams.
A simple example of what I’m saying is timesheets. For many companies they require the people to submit a timesheet once per week. Most companies justify the need for timesheets based on a desire to know what the people are working on.
Most companies approach the timesheet process with simple accountability like: “Employees are required to log at least 40 hours in their timesheet before going home on Friday.”
I know of one manager, who would be standing at your desk first thing Monday if you didn’t submit your timesheet. Your delinquency would start showing up in your performance review if it happened too many times.
For most people, they complete their timesheet on Friday just before going home. Given having a perfect memory is an illusion, they do their best with what they remember.
For many people, the process usually starts with the obvious. They fill in what they remember from the week. They then look at the total and raise it to ensure it’s at least at the minimum to adhere to the process.
What do you measure with this process? In many cases, you measure people’s ability to submit a weekly timesheet with a minimum number of hours.
When you focus on holding people accountable, problems will naturally start falling between the people and teams. Ownership of problems will be unclear, and you will inadvertently hide problems from more senior levels of leadership.
Shared ownership will always trump accountability for many reasons. With shared ownership, the accountabilities shift to focus on the desired and shared outcomes.
Shared ownership will result in many things including:
- Instead of laying blame, the people will come together to examine their shared role in creating and solving a problem
- Instead of justifying why the problems exist, the people will challenge the status quo
- Despite problems and mistakes, the people are sharing in the responsibility for improvements
- They don’t accept an obligation as the right thing to do and seek to change something, so they want to do it
Like anything in leadership, shared ownership is not a silver bullet to solving problems. Shared ownership takes commitment and tenacity to keep moving forward. It takes the courage to confront what is true and seek to change it.
Shared ownership is a journey, only you can commit to.
leadership and the iceberg of ignorance
The reality is the people closer to the front-line will naturally know about more problems than senior leadership. However, by fostering a culture of shared ownership, you will increase the number of problems which are visible to everyone.
Not every problem will requires an escalation. However, when executives can see more fully the scope of problems the team is encountering their decisions will be based more in reality.
Making decisions based on reality will mean you’re more likely to avoid those icebergs.
That was a great article. In my working days I can remember many times the worker in the plant new exactly what to do to solve the problem in a very short time. But they had to wait for top management to give the ok. And never knew when that was coming.
Thanks for the great example as it demonstrates the cost of trying to drive all problems to the top of the iceberg. Senior leaders need visibility to the problems, but to need an OK for all problems will sink a ship. Give the people some boundaries, and trust them to solve any problems within those boundaries.