“Knowledge Proximity” is an important thing when it comes to solving problems.
Heck, it’s important for even knowing the problems exist. To understand why, you have to understand the life cycle of “the problem” as a discrete entity.
Very, very rarely do problems happen all at once, starting out as massive issues. Yeah, every once in a while a jet plane falls out of the sky onto your office building and now you’ve got a big problem, but that’s absolutely the exception.
Problems start small, so small as to be almost invisible. Then they spread like a fire, like a virus, like a ripple in a pond – use your preferred analogy. When they’re that tiny, the same thing is true about them that’s true of any tiny thing: you can only see it if you know to look and you’re looking very closely.
That means you need both a level of knowledge of relevant warning signs, and you need to be close to where the problem can originate. The people with those two qualities in any organization are generally the people in the trenches.
A brilliant leader, manager or CEO can come up with great strategies to solve big problems. But no matter how brilliant they are, they can’t see every small problem before it becomes a big one. And who wants to be a brilliant leader spending all your time putting out fires? You’d rather be building something.
One of the first things you should build, then, is a really good pipeline of knowledge from the trenches about what’s happening out there. In a certain sense, the cashier at a local McDonald’s knows a LOT more than the CEO does, even if they don’t know what to do with that knowledge.
Scale, of course, becomes a problem. One CEO can’t listen to direct first-hand reports from a million employees. So you figure out how many people a good manager can pay attention to, and layer accordingly. But then you run into the problem of all those layers just serving to insulate the top leadership from the trenches even further. You can’t listen to a million people directly, but you also can’t expect to put ten layers of management between you and the trenches and expect to get timely, accurate or honest information.
This is one of the reasons that large-scale organizations, whether they’re corporations, governments, etc., have such inefficiencies when compared to smaller ones. The only real solution is to both layer, and provide autonomy to the greatest extent you can to those layers. That way, the information doesn’t actually have to make its way from a cashier to a CEO before action can be taken.
If you’re a leader, respect the knowledge proximity of the people in the trenches, and build everything you can to get access to it.