Saturday 1 June 2013

Seeing the big picture : Six tips to make it possible

Observing and learning from leaders made me realise that they have the uncanny ability to see the big picture. If I were to stand with them under the night sky then they would see the patterns emerging from what I thought were just static stars.

These leaders are able to comprehend the bigger context of something or see the bigger picture.
“The big picture of something is the overall perspective or objective, not the fine detail” and this ability is what I feel places them in positions of leadership.

You may recall the
proverbial story of the three bricklayers building the cathedral. Each one of them was asked what they were doing. The first said "I am laying bricks." The second said "I am building a wall." The third said “I am building a cathedral." So the third one saw the big picture. I also know that some readers would argue that seeing the big picture is also a function of time i.e. more experience you have the better you get at it. That is true but would the answers from the three bricklayers be any different if they were teens and had just finished their apprenticeship? The answer is no. It is all about perspective. This also implies that the art of seeing the bigger picture is something that can be shaped irrespective of age or experience.

So pervasive is our ability to get lost in trivial detail that a spoof law
“Parkinson’s Law of Triviality” is used to explain the inordinate time being consumed by trivial details and issues that they many miss out on the bigger picture.

Here is a true scenario that I faced and offer as an illustration. In a meeting on sales quota and coverage we were reviewing market growth projections for a specific product segment from two rival research firms. One estimated annual growth at 23% and the other at 25%. I suggested that we take the average (24%) and move on, as this was just one of the variables to be considered in the overall exercise and the presence of a precise number was not relevant. However, to my wonderment the team consumed a substantial part of the meeting in deciding which growth rate to use. To me the discussion between choosing 23% or 25% was meaningless. This is the equivalent of arguing that stabbing someone to death with a 10 inch knife is more humane then using a 10.1 inch knife! [
Robert Green Ingersoll was right when he made this declaration – “It is a thousand times better to have common sense without education than to have education without common sense”].

I provide six simple tips that are linked to each other in some form or fashion and will help in developing big picture thinking to help
“you grasp the implications of your actions and see things as they relate to other people and events.”

Tip 1 : See the ‘forest for the trees’

Make a note to stop and discern the forest rather than focus on the trees. This requires you to form a conscientious habit of seeing the obvious rather than getting lost in the petty detail. It is like dieting. All you are conscientiously doing is watching what goes into your mouth. You are in a state of high alert. So step back every time you feel the tendency to rush right in!

Tip 2 : Avoid seeing patterns where none exist

Beware of ‘patternicity’ or the ‘clustering elusion’. This happens as the human mind tries to put association to random events. It is a form of sense-making that gives meaning to something that otherwise would have none. This is my counter advisory to ensure that you are double checking what you see in your attempt to see the ‘forest for the trees’. Retain your sense of scepticism (watch this video by Michael Shermer on why people believe weird things) even when you see what you believe is a logical association or pattern. This will be bring balance in your attempts at ‘seeing the bigger picture’ and potentially avoiding the pitfall of simplification that I discussed in an earlier blog.

Tip 3 : Embrace ambiguity and uncertainty

Most corporate citizens spend an inordinate amount of time trying to look at the details to remove all ambiguity and uncertainty when looking at a problem. This is a misnomer. The terms ambiguity and uncertainty imply that there is a sense of lack of structure or ability to understand something! The search for meaning can be an illusion and the better you train yourself to enjoy uncertainty and ambiguity. Gilda Radner gives the perfect caution - “I wanted a perfect ending. Now I've learned, the hard way, that some poems don't rhyme, and some stories don't have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what's going to happen next. Delicious Ambiguity.”

Tip 4 : Remember the saying 'If your only tool is a hammer, all your problems will be nails'

Mark Twain hit the nail on the head (pun intended) with this quote. Your limited frame of reference will force you to view a challenge with a prejudiced point of view. Have a healthy disrespect for force-fitting solutions in the context of your own limited frame of reference. The challenge is to develop multiple ‘mental models’ and a richer frame of reference that allows you add a screw-driver or a chisel in your tool-box! I have improved my frame of reference by thinking hard and long about every success I have had AND all failure that I have suffered. And by the way, not just mine but looked at the success and failures of others wih the intent to learn rather than mock! Seek out the devil’s advocates in your organisation who will always challenge your thinking and force you to rethink your belief. They are invaluable. Up your mettle and engage with them. Let down your guard and share your ideas with others. Seek help and guidance. Keep learning. And if you don’t believe me then take heed from W. Edward Deming – “Learning is not compulsory, neither is survival.”

Tip 5 : Look for the ‘invisible gorilla in the room’

In an experiment at Harvard, the researchers put a video together of six individuals playing with a basketball. The six were evenly distributed into two teams with different coloured t-shirts. The task given to the watcher was to count the number of passes being done by a specific team by focusing on the colour of their shirt. At the end of the video a majority of the viewers did not recall seeing a gorilla strut across the screen as they were engrossed in the assignment that was given to them. [Please watch the video on this amazing experiment. Now that I have told you it is likely that you will see the ‘invisible gorilla’]. As Isaac Asimov said - “It is the obvious which is so difficult to see most of the time. People say 'It's as plain as the nose on your face.' But how much of the nose on your face can you see, unless someone holds a mirror up to you?” Can you be that mirror to yourself?

Tip 6 : Always be on a ‘red herring’ alert

A red herring is a fallacy in which an irrelevant topic is presented in order to divert or water-down attention from the original issue. This can happen by chance or also through malice or nefarious intent. This is a distraction and will not allow you to see the bigger picture. Conserve your energy for what is more relevant and ignore the smell of the ‘red herring’. This may appear to be the ‘red herring’ in this blog but this ability to ignore obfuscating detail or irrelevant detail has helped me in making sense of many of the challenges thrown at me at work.

I hope the above will help you in rising above the noise and cacophony arising from disparate pieces of information and making sense of how the detail shapes the ‘bigger picture’. Your goal is to solve for the 'bigger picture' and not for the detail.


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