When an MBA said “low-hanging fruit”, he meant “easy pickings”, something that could and should be snatched with minimal effort. But real low-hanging fruit ripens last, and should be therefore picked as late as possible. Further, picking the low-hanging fruit first meant that you’d have to carry your bushel basket higher and higher as the day wore on, which was plainly stupid. Low-hanging fruit was meant to be picked last.
[from Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town, p 11-12]
Like most of modern business, “low-hanging fruit” is a term divorced from the world it supposedly comes from, without the smallest understanding of how the natural world actually works.
It’s not that we need degrees in biology. Scientists, oddly enough, often don’t grasp the natural world well, either. Too compartmentalized. The world outside is messy, confusing and contradictory.
Creating a sustainable agriculture (one that you can invest in each year and see an increasing or continuing return) is actually quite difficult. It takes a strong understanding of both the soils and the cycles of the local climate, some of which are twenty years long or more. Ignoring the mega-cycles of mini- ice ages and 500-year events, or catastrophic climate change from events like Krakatoa or the impact of an asteroid, you still have a multitude of variables that must be continually balanced.
I can’t imagine many business leaders successfully running a real field — you know, one with crops. They would end up taking as much as they could as soon as they could, leaving the field in ruins. A true “slash and burn” technique.
(Surprisingly, slash and burn isn’t a very good form of agriculture and can only be done when you have metal axeheads. It doesn’t produce as good of results as many other low-tech techniques such as slow-burns to add carbon to the soil. Most of the nutrients go up in the smoke in slash and burn. Strangely, you can see how this works as an analogy for many modern business practices.)
It’s odd that an agricultural phrase came into business usage. Most of our business metaphors come from the military.
It’s not a good fit.
Agriculture would be a better metaphorical field to plow for real work. From what I know from talking to successful farmers and gardeners, it’s a hard life full of risk. You have weather, sure, but you also have changes from plot to plot.
You don’t just have to worry about which landrace will work on your soil but which will work best when it’s wet in the spring, dry in the summer and wet at harvest. All rice are not the same. You must predict the unpredictable (weather), rally forces to react to outside actions (war, markets, catastrophic atmospheric events), create adequate reserves while not having so much that they go to waste.
Most of the time, there aren’t known good decisions. You have to make decisions in uncertainty, relying on the wisdom of the past and your own experience. Even non-modern farming has these issues.
So next time you’re tempted to call something “low-hanging fruit” just say “easy pickin’s”.
Image credit: Blueberries in woman’s hands. © donatellasimeone. Via Fotolia.