Most managers and leaders would acknowledge the importance of seeing the bigger picture at work and avoiding getting bogged down in the micro-management of day-to-day tasks. But for many actually having the time and wherewithal to step back and see the forest for the trees is difficult.
Being able to see the bigger picture can essentially by summarised as being able to see beyond the specific task in front of you, understanding interdependencies across functions and divisions, and understanding the long-term and short-term trade-offs of business decisions.
The benefits of seeing the bigger picture are manifold. A manager who can step back is likely to have greater job satisfaction through a better understanding of their role and improved relationships by being able to step away from micromanagement of their team. They are more likely to be able to act proactively, rather reactively. Elsbeth Johnson from the London Business School wrote for Harvard Business Review that managers and leaders who see the bigger picture are able exist at the macro and micro-levels simultaneously:
“One of the CEOs I most admire can do this — she goes from 10,000 feet to ground level in 30 seconds, linking her answers to the macro questions (this purpose, this brand positioning, this customer offer) to the micro operational implications for the business. But what she does really well is come back up. Because it is all too tempting, once you have gone micro, to stay there. But the main point of going micro is to test the validity of the macromanagement views you are coming to.”
- Familiarise yourself with what your company states as its own big picture: Look at mission statements, vision and company figures. What does the organisation offer, and not offer? What is its purpose?
- Familiarise yourself with how the organisation is structured: Create a diagram of the other departments or teams, their internal structure, their joint and individual roles. Identify how the departments or teams interact with each other.
- Understand the market that your organisation and business is operating within: Who are your customers/clients? Who are your competitors? What external trends or factors will (or could) impact the market? Where does your business fit within this marketplace? (Note that some of this will overlap with having a good grasp of your company’s finances).
- Teach yourself to make connections: Being able to see the bigger picture means being able to make connections between various data sets. Making these connections may not come intuitively so actively prompt yourself to look for them. Make sure that you know why something has to be done, not just how it has to be done.
- Set aside time for thinking: Identify when in the day your mind is best suited to bigger thinking. Then set some time aside during that period to just think about your work, your role, the tasks ahead etc. Make sure there are no distractions: no tasks, or readings, or images. Start small – just once a week, and increase from there.
- Talk through your thoughts: Use conversation to challenge and widen any ideas you might come up with. If you don’t have someone who is available to chat or who it is appropriate to talk through your work ideas with, write them down instead or say them out loud. Another option is posing a question to yourself and writing down your answer in free form.
- Be bold with your thoughts: Justin Rosenstein is the cofounder of Asana and has worked at Google and Facebook. He wrote for Fast Company “I often start my thinking process by asking, “what is the most ambitious articulation of my goal?” One of the most valuable outcomes of thinking big is being able to step outside your comfort zone, away from the day-to-day routine.” Rosenstein also recommends identifying any assumptions you may be working under: “What assumptions are you and your team implicitly making about the problem? For each assumption, ask yourself: what would happen if we removed it? Removing assumptions can free up your mind to see the bigger picture.”
- Make concrete first steps: This kind of free flowing, big-picture thinking will likely generate some lofty and ambitious goals. When you have big, broad goals, identify some first actionable steps that allow you to make the transition from strategy to reality.
Bring others along
- Share the big picture regularly with your team and colleagues: this will give you practice articulating clearly and comprehensively what your big picture is and will clarify it in your own mind. Connect the big picture to the day-to-day tasks your team undertakes so that they (and you) can clearly see how the micro links to the macro.