August 22, 2008

The Problem with Low-Hanging Fruit

When I first started in the knowledge management business, I asked a group of senior New York law firm knowledge management experts what advice they would give me. One extremely pragmatic colleague said: "Collect the Low-Hanging Fruit."

Nearly a decade later, I still find I keep an eye out for low-hanging fruit. However, now I have a better understanding of the limitations of low-hanging fruit. (For those of you puzzled by the expression "low-hanging fruit," one suggested definition is : "a thing or person that can be won, obtained, or persuaded with little effort.")

First, let's talk about the benefits of low-hanging fruit:

- they are visible and easy to identify
- they are within reach and relatively simple to address (with a little concentrated effort)

Unfortunately, there are problems with low-hanging fruit. Because these pieces of fruit are apparent to most careful observers, you probably won't be the first one to tackle them. In fruit parlance, they are bruised. In the knowledge management world, they may be projects that have been attempted and abandoned for good reason. Therefore, be very sure you have a winning approach before you publicly go after a piece of low-hanging fruit. If you fail (like all the others before you), there will be lots of folks ready to say "I told you so."

In addition to being bruised, some of that low-hanging fruit may be over-ripe or not worth the effort. Sure you can collect it, but what good will it do you? These are problems that you might easily solve, however, if the problem or proposed solution are ephemeral, then you've wasted your time. Thinking in KM terms, these kinds of low-hanging fruit often are problems that have arisen as firms have failed to keep step with advances in techology. You can provide a home-grown solution, but if there is suitable third-party technology readily available, you really haven't advanced the ball very much. These over-ripe fruit may also be problems that are aggravating, but not central to the business of the firm. Solving them may provide temporary relief, but if the problem you've solved is only tangential to the business of your firm, why bother?

Another problem with low-hanging fruit is that they tend to be scattered randomly on various trees. Even if you go after this fruit in a systematic fashion, you'll end up with a knowledge management effort that is as diffuse and scattered as that fruit. Unfortunately, this means your KM effort will appear unfocused and that rarely reflects well on you.

Collecting low-hanging fruit is a knowledge management tactic NOT a legitimate strategy. Strategy sets your goals and gives you a reason for the projects you undertake and the methods you employ. Tactics are fine, if they are deployed to advance an agreed strategy. Otherwise, they are little better than busy work. And, busy work rarely results in meaningful gains in productivity. Or, as Sun Tzu is reputed to have said: "Strategy without tactics is the long road to victory; tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat."

Low-hanging fruit is tempting. It can provide a few easy wins to kick start your KM effort. However, if you are ever tempted to make low-hanging fruit your sole or main knowledge management goal, remember Adam and Eve. Sometimes that fruit is more trouble than it's worth.

(For a terrific discussion of strategy and tactics, see Bruce MacEwen's Adam Smith, Esq. blogpost, The Balanced Scorecard, version 5.0.)

1 comment:

Mary Abraham said...

Patrick Lambe has a great alternative approach for those tempted by low-hanging fruit. See his post, Easy Pickings, to read his explanation of the REACH approach. Using REACH should keep you firmly focused on strategy.

Here's the url for his post:

- Mary