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Why The Iceberg Of Ignorance Is Still Relevant And How To Melt It

Why The Iceberg Of Ignorance Is Still Relevant And How To Melt It

A well-known study in the 1980s stated that “only four per cent of a company’s problems are known to top managers”. Sound familiar? Well, this statistic sits at the tip of the ‘Iceberg of Ignorance’ and still resonates in businesses today.

So let’s look at why the ‘Iceberg of Ignorance’ study is so relevant, how leaders and managers can melt it, and what this has to do with a (prematurely binned) 90’s reality TV show.

What is the ‘Iceberg of Ignorance’?

The ‘Iceberg of Ignorance’ is a term coined by Sidney Yoshida in 1989. It was a really popular concept in its day and led to the popularisation of suggestion boxes and quality circles, among other things.

It goes like this:

100% of an organisation’s problems are known to front-line employees

(It’s not implausible. Yoshida wasn’t suggesting that all front-line employees know about all of the problems.)

74% of problems are known to supervisors

Yoshida reported that the percentage of known problems decreased within those in a supervisory role. But that percentage continues to decrease…

9% of problems are known to middle management

That’s pretty low!

4% of problems are known to top managers


I do take the percentages with a pinch of salt. For one thing, the data is 25 years old. Yoshida also focused his study on a number of mid-sized organisations and so the percentages would probably vary based on size.

Regardless… the message is clear and still relevant today: there’s a cost attached to not being close enough to the ‘front-line’, so it’s time to…

Go ‘Back to the Floor’

Anyone remember ‘Back to the Floor’?

It was a 90’s reality TV show on BBC2, where CEOs or MDs took on junior positions within their own organisations in an undercover capacity. (The show was later repurposed as ‘Undercover Boss’ – there are a few episodes still showing on YouTube if you’re interested 🙂.)

In nearly every episode, the Iceberg of Ignorance melted before our very eyes as the peep-holes of each leader was well and truly opened to some of the challenges that their employees faced every day. Often, there were easy fixes.

The words used by Butlins MD, Tony Marshall summed his experience up neatly: “The whole experience has been just mind-blowing, it really has. This insight that I’ve had – it is an opportunity I’m not going to waste – because I’ve just seen too much and learnt too much.”.

How to melt the Iceberg of Ignorance

So what can we be doing to melt the berg in our businesses? Here’s what:

  1. Understand and engage with employees

Having now watched hours and hours of footage of Back to the Floor, I’ve not once seen an episode where the leader didn’t value the experience – there really is no better way of understanding the pain points felt by your people without experiencing them first-hand.

Although impracticable, I’d argue that there’s room for a small amount of this, at least, in every organisation. Take Hive customer believe housing for example – the housing association is actively increasing face-to-face time with their harder-to-reach employees.

“We’ve been working to improve engagement with our in-house repairs service – who have often felt left out…This has included bringing employees into dedicated sessions with managers and giving their input on how we can improve services, plus sharing feedback from customers… This is developing the relationship between managers and trades employees.” said Louise Shillinglaw, Head of People and Organisational Development, believe housing ltd. (Read article)

  1. Use technology more effectively

As suggested above, getting ‘back to the floor’ (hereafter known as BTTF!) might be practical to a point, but it’s not at all scalable.

Savvy orgs, like leading telematics car insurer, insurethebox, are now using technology to take BTTF concept to a scalable level and bringing in innovative tech alternatives to the unwieldy, traditional annual survey.

“Having worked in a lot of large organisations that use the very traditional annual or biannual survey, it just doesn’t work anymore. In a modern business you need that constant stream of data that comes directly from the floor – exactly the same way as you deal with your customers on a day-to-day basis, you can’t change and improve things if you’re only testing it once a year.” said Andy Preacher, People and Culture Director UK, Aioi Nissay Dowa Insurance Europe. (Read customer story)

  1. Involve your people in change and decision making

Making decisions in ivory towers, without genuine involvement and communication, may seem easier in the short term, but long term, this approach can leave employees feeling out of the loop, unsettled and disengaged in change.

A great way to get employees to buy into change initiatives and company decisions is to survey your workforce regularly, share survey insights with your people and then involve them in action planning – a bit like Gateshead College do:

“We like to give power to our people and let them own their ideas. We give them the budget and the resources and let them run with it because the results are so much more rewarding for employees. The Quiet Garden – for example – was opened in May 2018 and has been a huge success, it’s enjoyed by employees and students alike.” said Paul Campbell, People and Organisational Development (OD) Manager, Gateshead College. (Read customer story)

John’s final thought…

(a bit like ‘Jerry’s Final Thought’ in line with the classic 90’s TV references!)

Now, it seems to me that leaders who sit at the tip of the Iceberg of Ignorance – unaware of escalating issues – will struggle to direct their ship when it hits bigger challenges, while leaders who have their eyes on the ground and the horizon – spotting and resolving problems from the bottom-up – will have better control and foresight. 

So I guess it’s time to ask yourself, where do you sit on the Iceberg of Ignorance?

John Ryder is Hive’s Founder and CEO; Hive innovation is his thing and he can usually be found future-gazing while wearing a snazzy pair of sneaks. Connect with John on LinkedIn.

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