We think in generalities, but we live in detail. – Alfred North Whitehead
Tim Harford in his book Adapt: Why success always starts with failure has a section on the worm’s eye view – and that is a phrase worth exploring.
Much of the time we think that what we need is a bird’s eye view – we need to soar above the landscape and pick out what is important, see the big picture, work out where we’re going. Strategy is, after all, the art of figuring out which direction to head in.
And that’s all very well except when it comes to matters of people and action in daily circumstances. That’s because the landscape you’re thinking about is different for everyone, we have our own ways of looking at the world and making sense of what is going on. What’s the point in looking down at a landscape that’s hidden from sight or that changes all the time. The ways we use to find out what people want have significant methodological problems. For example, if you run a staff satisfaction survey how do you know if people say what they really think or say what they think you want to hear, especially if you’re in a small company and the results are something you want to talk about. Does the fact that a survey show that you have happy staff really mean that you have happy staff? How can you tell?
The way you tell what’s happening is by going to see what’s on the ground. The Japanese call this going to Gemba – the place where work is done. In the new series of Turner and Hooch there’s a line where Turner and his sister are sat in a car, doing what their Dad, a policeman, called doing a “look-see”. Turner wants to stay in the car and his sister tells him that they have to get out and walk around – otherwise it’s a look-sit, not a look-see. When the police want to search a crime scene they do a fingertip search, get down on the ground and let their fingers walk. That’s taking a worm’s eye view – that’s how you see what’s really going on, what the obstacles really are and how you get around them.
This is hard, mundane, detail work that most people don’t want to do. It’s much better soaring up in the air, free as a bird, looking at the big picture and telling people what to do. But what actually happens is down on the ground and if you don’t get your head around that you won’t be able to make a real difference. It’s also where you discover value – after all, you don’t fly around and find treasure. You dig for it. In the ground.
Whatever you do – if you find that things aren’t working, it’s probably because you aren’t looking at the detail of the work that’s in front of you. If your message isn’t getting across the problem is in the details, it’s that your product needs to be better, the pitch needs to be thought through more, your advertising needs to be on point. Getting it right is about getting the detail right.
This takes time and trial and error and learning. No one gets it right the first time. And no one gets it right by reading books and thinking about principles. They get it right by doing it, seeing what happens, working out what went wrong and what they could do better and trying again, going around that loop until it works.
There are no shortcuts. There is just the act of getting on with the work.