One afternoon, way back in 2002 while taking an environmental science course at Johnson County Community College, our professor took us out to a local creek to test the quality of the water. One might think this would be as simple as purchasing a testing kit, dropping it in the water and seeing what color things turned. But, as it turns out, his strategy was far different.
Rather than deploying store bought testing kits, we collected various water samples and took them back to the classroom where we analyzed them under the microscope. Under careful scrutiny we were able to see that there were tiny aquatic insects living in the water. Barely noticeable to the naked eye, they revealed themselves under close and steady observation.
By identifying each of these living organisms and learning under what types of conditions and environments they thrived in, one could discern what chemicals or elements were present in the water. Inversely, if you know what insects thrive in toxic water conditions you can look for them and get a sense for what types of toxins might be present.
While it may be easier and faster to merely rely on a $2 test kit to gauge whether the water was safe for drinking or swimming, one would miss the underlying nuances of the environment and what its composed of.
Binding Constraints to Progress
I reconnected with this experience a decade later while at Harvard Kennedy School where Professor Ricardo Haussmann teaches about binding constraints in economic development. Simply put, a binding constraint is a boundary or factor in the environment that is preventing economic growth in a particular area.
Suppose you were asking: what is the binding constraint to animals thriving in the Sahara desert? This is not unlike the question of what limits economic growth in a country. However, in the Sahara, it is instructive to note that of those few animals that do thrive in that environment, a very large proportion are camels and a very small proportion are hippopotamus. The fact that the animals most intensive in the use of water, hippopotamus, are scarce while the animals least intensive in the use of water, camels, are thriving suggests that the supply of water may be a binding constraint to the spread of animals in the Sahara. (Source Doing Growth Diagnostics in Practice: A ‘Mindbook’; 2008, Ricardo Hausmann, Bailey Klinger, Rodrigo Wagner)
In other words, where there are camels there’s probably little water and where there are hippopotamus there are no camels.
What Do Camels in the Sahara have to do with Aquatic Insects in Kansas?
As leaders, if we are to change or have impact on an environment, we must clearly understand what’s happening underneath the surface. Often, it’s easy to try and find a quick fix for a problem by relying on our own casual observations.
But when we do this, we miss the critical elements that help us to understand and properly diagnose a problem. In both of the above examples, we’re not actually looking for insects or camels merely for the sake of looking for insects and camels. We’re looking to them to teach us something about the environment that we’re studying. Not only can they instruct us about the presence of water in an environment, but they can also tell us what is in the water itself.
They are important indicators that help us to see a broader picture. As a leader, its your job to put the pieces together.
In era when its easy to just Google something or look it up on Wikipedia, we often reduce the true value of knowledge and wisdom to something that we can find on the Internet.
However, there is no Google search or Wikipedia article that can prescribe a solution to any of the global challenges we face. Rather, we must each develop our leadership skills to objectively interrogate the environment and identify what elements are present and what binding constraints are holding back progress.
By gaining a deep understanding of the environment and the forces present, we can begin to formulate plans and solutions that can adapt to and withstand the elements.