Last summer as strolled through my garden I could see that the leaves of all my green bean plants were turning yellow. So I watered them, fertilized them, and hoed the weeds away. But they just got worse and worse. Then one day I got down on my knees and sat eye to eye with my pathetic looking bean plants. Suddenly I had an entirely new perspective on what was happening. The bottoms of the leaves were covered with hundreds of tiny yellow bugs that were eating away at the plant from below.

Sometimes we need to do what is inconvenient and uncomfortable – to get down on the ground and look really closely at the situation. The difference between standing at arms length and experiencing the issue “on the ground” is significant. Too often conversations in meetings feels a lot like the kind of detached approach I took with my garden – intellectual, comfortable, and completely out of touch with the facts on the ground.

I’ve come to believe that if you want to build a better shopping cart, talk to shoppers. If you want to solve world hunger, talk with those who are finding ways to feed themselves in the midst of scarcity. And if want to create a zero waste company, spend a week diving the dumpsters behind your production facility. Then come together and talk. Ideo’s Human Centered Design Toolkit is a great example of this up close and personal principle in action.

As a consultant and leader, giving up my status as “the expert” and handing over my role as “the authority” is rarely comfortable. And it is almost always what is needed to produce breakthrough thinking, practical solutions, empowered actors — all in service of creating a world that works for everyone.

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