How many times have you heard that you need to get the big picture? Or that you feel like you didn’t have the big picture? I’ve heard this phrase repeated too many times to count and each time I do the thought that runs through my mind is this: what exactly is the big picture and why don’t I have it?
The fact is that the big picture depends on your point of view. I don’t believe anyone can truly have the big picture (serious emphasis on “big”) because it’s not possible to see the infinite number of influence points involved. In fact, the bigger the project, program or issue the more difficult it is for anyone – even the leader at the top – to have the big picture.
More importantly, even if you do grasp a glimpse at the big picture it’s only a snapshot in time. As soon as you see it, it’s gone. Changed because of the changing environment, circumstances, interactions between people and components.
This is why instead of fixating on getting the big picture you need to focus on grasping big picture thinking.
Big Picture Thinking
“Big-picture thinkers realize there is a world out there besides their own, and they make an effort to get outside of themselves and see other people’s worlds through their eyes. It’s hard to see the picture while inside the frame.” ~ John Maxwell
The difference between the two is subtle yet important. The big picture is static and usually available to only a few people. Big picture thinking is dynamic and accessible to everyone, from the corner office to the field.
Here’s a illustrative story about three stonecutters I’ve hit upon a few times in different writings. It provides a good image of what big picture thinking is:
One day a traveller, walking along a lane, came across three stonecutters working in a quarry. Each was busy cutting a block of stone. Interested to find out what they were working on, the traveller asked the first stonecutter what he was doing. “I am cutting a stone!”
Still no wiser the traveller turned to the second stonecutter and asked him what he was doing. “I am cutting this block of stone to make sure that it’s square, and its dimensions are uniform, so that it will fit exactly in its place in a wall.
A bit closer to finding out what the stonecutters were working on but still unclear, the traveller turned to the third stonecutter. He seemed to be the happiest of the three and when asked what he was doing replied: “I am building a cathedral.”
All three stonecutters were correct in their answers, but the third had his big picture glasses on. He had an understanding of what his actions in the quarry were aiming at and that his contributions were part of something larger. In this case, a cathedral.
Big Picture Thinking is Good
To keep the big picture from becoming nothing more than a dream you must frame it. Depending on where you sit in an organization you may believe that you lack the knowledge or insight to properly frame, let alone determine, the big picture.
This is why cultivating the skill of big picture thinking is so important. Instead of being restricted by the belief you lack the material to see the big picture, you are able to develop your own big picture based on the materials you do have. When you maintain big picture thinking it:
Allows You to Lead. Leaders are typically viewed as having “the big picture”. People tend to follow those who have an understanding of where they are headed and where others need to go as well. If you want to lead, then big picture thinking is something you need to be doing routinely.
Keeps You on Target. Big picture thinking is essential to goal accomplishment. When you practice big picture thinking you are capable of seeing how goals fit into the fabric of your organization’s, or your own, strategy. This helps you to clearly articulate why you are pursuing a goal and this in turn helps you to identify what needs to be done.
Allows You to See What Others See. It’s important to be able to see the point of view of others. This is one of those emotional intelligence skills all engineer leader must cultivate to be successful in their careers. When we use big picture thinking, we give ourselves the creative license to open our aperture and see an issue from not only different peoples perspectives, but from different levels as well. For example, if you’re a project manager you might use big picture thinking to view your project from the perspective of your team leader or the company CEO. You could also use big picture thinking to view the project from the perspective of the end user or the customers who might use the project five years from now.
Promotes Teamwork. I’ve already covered that big picture thinking allows you to lead. It also allows people to collaborate on something larger than them and on something they can become energized over. A team needs an effective leader to succeed. But it also needs the big picture to effectively coordinate its actions.
Keeps You From Avoiding the Mundane. When you practice big picture thinking it helps to make the most routine task less routine. It was a normal occurrence throughout my Air Force career to paint the picture of how tasks like restriping streets or repairing a roll-up door contributed to the mission. The mission was the big picture and it was important to understand that even the little things had an effect on the big thing.
Building the Skills for Big Picture Thinking
If big picture thinking is something you desire to bring more into your life and career there’s only one way to make it happen: practice. Here are a few things to keep in mind as you practice the skill:
Don’t Aim For Certainty. Big picture thinking requires you to allow the picture edges to be hazy. When we put rigid frames around the edges of anything – a goal, a desire, a project management plan – whenever something goes outside the lines it causes distress. Big picture thinking is intended to reduce distress by opening our minds to a range of possibilities. Instead of aiming for a rigid image, allow it be a little blurry. This way you’re able to adjust to opportunities and possibilities.
Find Lessons in Every Experience. Everything you do has a lesson in it, even washing the dishes. Pick an experience you’ve had in the past day and reflect on the lessons you might draw from it. Big picture thinking can only become a strong skill when we learn from the spectrum of experiences we live through. When we have a variety of experiences to draw from we are better able to comprehend situations when they arise.
Gain Insight from Different People. Seeking input and advice from a variety of sources is vital to developing big picture thinking. If all you rely on is what you know or what your team knows, the ability to solve unique problems or to grow or to further develop personally and professionally will be stymied. Instead, seek the input from different people whenever you can.
Open Up to Expanding Your World. If there is one thing I’ve learned from living and traveling around the world it is this: there is no such thing as “the only way” to accomplish something. You don’t have to travel the world, however, to develop your big picture thinking. You can expand your world right where you are with what you have at hand – likely your smartphone or computer! Access to different ways to solve problems is more accessible than at anytime in human history. Access the information and expand your world and your big picture thinking.
Give Yourself Permission to Learn Something Unique. It’s easy to get into a rut in our life as we move through the trials and tribulations of personal and professional routines. If you find yourself in this situation you will also find your ability to perform big picture thinking severely limited. Overcome this by first giving yourself permission to learn something unique and then second, actually learn it. This might be yoga, learning a new language, starting to read science fiction or beginning cooking classes. Big picture thinking requires your mind to be expansive and creative. Being in a rut won’t get you there. It will get you where you’ve been before.
“The big picture doesn’t just come from distance; it also comes from time.” ~ Simon Sinek
Christian J. Knutson, P.E., PMP
The Engineering Career Coach
Maxwell, John C. How Successful People Think: Change Your Thinking, Change Your Life. New York: Center Street, 2009. Print.
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net