Most leaders know it’s a problem, but few have found a solution.
Ever since the Iceberg of Ignorance floated into our collective consciousness back in the late 1980s, leaders who were paying attention became increasingly aware of a dangerous disconnect between the information known by the people in their organizations and the information that made it to them.
The famous Iceberg of Ignorance study, produced by Sidney Yoshida, posited that frontline workers were aware of 100% of the floor problems an organization faces, supervisors were aware of only 74%, middle managers 9%, and senior executives were aware of only 4%.
Since 1989, this information flow has gotten worse, not better. The sheer amount of information now being collected is mind-spinning.
The scale and speed of digital transformation (DX) has left no industry unturned. According to Statista, in 2022, spending on DX is projected to reach $1.8 trillion. By 2025, it’s forecast to reach $2.8 trillion. This mass shift toward the digitization of every kind of business, from manufacturing to mango production, has led to a tsunami of data. We’ve become collectively fixated on building and deploying artificial intelligence to track and analyze every data point on which we can get our digital hands. Every mouse click, written word, and action taken by a person or machine is logged. The goal? To tap this data treasure trove and run smarter businesses, cut waste, preempt breakages, increase output, refine processes, build better relationships with our customers, and master all manner of other operational aspirations.
But while we’ve insatiably invested in artificial intelligence to analyze every data point, what we’ve blindly disregarded is arguably our most valuable one: our people. Our human intelligence — those on our organizational frontlines — understands problems and solutions not through complex analysis but by earned personal experience. We need to get better at asking our people what they think.
One of the most effective, successive waves of business transformation should be about finding ways to tap the intelligence of our people, building channels for human information to flow unencumbered from bottom to top and side to side.
Here are a couple of practical applications and ways leaders can drive positive business outcomes by leaning on team intelligence over the artificial kind. I’ll start with one I use myself.
Strategic Alignment. In my current position, I have built an annual strategy process based on a series of company-wide conversations to strengthen our cultural and strategic alignment. Over a year, we run a strategy-informing conversation, tapping into the collective intelligence of our remote workforce by asking what single important thing we should consider when building our strategic plan. Then, using the insight gathered to help inform decisions, the senior leadership creates the annual strategy. When it’s launched, we ensure that it is well understood and potential hurdles identified through a second company-wide conversation. Halfway through the year, we involve the entire company in a third conversation about our plan to see where we are being successful and where we are falling short. The results? An annual strategic plan that has the insights of those at the frontline baked directly into the heart of it, and, as a result, has buy-in from all corners of the organization. This, augmented with data points that we capture through other channels, has significantly reduced our risk of blindspots.
New Leadership Integration. The Harvard Business Review estimates that between one-third and one-half of all new chief executives fail in their first 18 months. Succession is a complicated business. Even when robust leadership onboarding programs are in place, these tend to focus on relaying corporate and operational dynamics, providing detail on ongoing projects and financial projections, etc. They don’t attempt to recognize the myriad of more complex political, personal, and cultural dynamics that exist within a company by way of its people. These are far more likely to impede the progress of a new leader — at best being a distraction, at worst being destructive.
Going directly to a new team as part of the onboarding process and allowing them to share honest opinions, questions, and concerns anonymously, an incoming leader can immediately understand the field they’re stepping on to. The honest feedback received from a process like this might not be all sunshine and rainbows, but understanding where real problems lie and how to address them will better ensure a new leader can be confident that they’re informed as they take over the reins. Following that pre-boarding conversation, I would recommend tapping into the collective intelligence as part of the traditional 30-60-90-day plan and making sure that a leader communicates any actions that have been taken because of the insights they were provided with.
Going directly to the people in an organization before taking over and asking for their opinions will allay fears, build early team trust, and lead to far more healthy working relationships. With their opinions and concerns aired and addressed, team members are far more likely to adapt, abandon old habits and behaviors, and get behind a leader who has demonstrated genuine curiosity and empathy as they transition the company.
Valuing Intelligence. Accurate business intelligence shouldn’t always be defined by the amount of data we can collect, but by the value it can deliver. By electing to tap the human intelligence present at every touchpoint of our organizations, we might just find that the person closest to the problem is the one with the best solution.