30,000 Feet in the Weeds

ARTICLE | Aug 31, 2016
Picture taken from Peter Rintels on Flickr

How many times has this happened to you? You are asked to research and present an idea for consideration. On the surface it seems like a great idea, but as you start to dig in and present the details of how to get it accomplished, or the challenges it presents, someone utters "well, I'm looking at things from 30,000 feet" to describe their desired grasp on the situation. Usually it is a self-important manager, project lead or executive in an organization describing their interest in not understanding the nuances of a problem. It is then followed up with another comment describing how "you are in the weeds".

Chances are it was frustrating and insulting. If you feel that way, its okay, because you just heard two of the dumbest phrases in all of business. It's not you. It's them. And if you are guilty of using these words: Stop. Now. You sound ridiculous. And here's why....

30,000 FEET

"Looking at things from 30,000 feet" just means you are incapable of seeing shit on a cloudy day. Seriously. On a clear day you may be able to see the topography of the land below and appreciate the winding rivers, the patterns of the fields and jutting landscape of a rocky mountain range, but on a cloudy day, you can't see anything. Just the clouds.

Its also why planes fly this high--the air is thinner and offers less resistance. The rarified air makes it hard to breathe, but you don't have as much trouble passing through it. This is the same with any idea. Dumb ideas don't need to breathe and it's certainly easier to support them if you don't have resistance. But is that truly the best way to be an implementer of great ideas? Of course not. It may be easier to let the plane fly at that altitude, but you still have to land eventually and little details like "wheels" are the things that make that possible. Ignoring that does you no good.

The phrase itself describes one's ability and desire to understand the nuances of an issue. And nuances are the difference between an idea being implemented successfully and it failing and floundering during implementation. How many ideas look great from "30,000 feet" but don't work when you get down to doing them?

Cold fusion and teleporters, I'm looking at you.

IN THE WEEDS

The phrase "in the weeds" is used as the complementary, but hardly complimentary, pairing to "30,000 feet". It is designed to remind you how the details don't matter to people who don't want to know them. This is true, but hardly right. The "weeds" matter.

Without the details, we cannot see how to get where we want to go. These phrases used in combination are the equivalent of saying "I climbed the mountain" because you saw the mountain. Actually climbing a mountain requires planning, determination and preparation. It requires you to put one foot in front of the other-one step at a time-until you reach the top. It cannot be done from a distance, but requires you to dig in to the details of what is the best next step. Without the details, you are unable to scale the mountain, or land the plane. And I don't think anyone would argue that landing a plane is a pretty important step in the whole flying experience.

THE BIG PICTURE

While these two phrases should be permanently struck from your business vernacular, I appreciate and support the need to look at "the big picture". It is necessary to gain perspective before attacking an issue. Looking at a mountain from a distance is a great way to see the easiest route up. Taking in the big picture allows us to do the planning and prep work necessary to scale it. But when it comes to actually scaling the mountain of your idea, "the weeds" matter. If there is a chasm you can't cross, your trip will be short. If there is weather you don't plan for, your trip will be short. If you don't have the right supplies...you get the idea.

So spend time looking at the big picture. But the next time you're presenting an idea and someone says they are looking at things from 30,000 feet or you are in the weeds, just be sure to smile, ignore them and know that the details don't matter to the willfully ignorant, just those who want to be successful.

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