The simplest ways to develop Big Picture thinking skills

One day a traveler, walking along a lane, came across 3 stonecutters working in a quarry. Each was busy cutting a block of stone. Interested to find out what they were working on, he asked the first stonecutter what he was doing. “I am cutting a stone!” Still, no wiser the traveler 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 traveler 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.”

This story is based on an old folktale and the morale of the story is that if people understand the overall objective of their organization, and how their work fits into it, it helps them to do their job better. Furthermore, it might actually help them enjoy what they do. In a world where a focus on details and small things is imperative, how does one distinguish the trees without losing sight of the forest? Here are six tips to help you develop big picture thinking skills:

1. Orient yourself

To continue using the analogy of the trees and the forest, before being able to distinguish between these two, one should have an understanding of the forest. How does it look like? The same counts for any organization. Create a snapshot of the present environment. Make sure you understand the factors, trends, and forces at work in your organization’s marketplace and a unique web of relationships that exist within that environment. A great way to do this is by creating a context map. With a systematic view of the environment in which an organization finds itself, you will be better prepared to respond proactively to changes in this environment.

2. Make it a Team Effort

You may find it difficult to evaluate external factors, trends, and forces that surround your organization, especially if you’re at it alone. So, team up with a group of people. The best ideas flow out of a conversation. Bring a group of people together, as diverse as possible with different backgrounds and roles. This allows for a greater, deeper discussion and analysis. 

3. Ask Questions

Thomas Berger once said that: "The art and science of asking questions is the source of all knowledge”. As children and students learn by asking questions, so can you. It is the most effective way to gain new knowledge and deeper insights. Yet, too often we fail to ask questions. Either because of laziness, the fear of being judged as ignorant, or the haste to get this done, people miss out on great knowledge and experience that can be acquired by asking questions. Make it a habit to ask more questions every day. Instead of giving instructions, ask a question. Questions not only help us learn, it’s a way to lead. 

4. Make it Visual

People relate more to pictures than they do to words. The people at HP found out that in this age of multimedia and mass communication, visual communication can be more powerful than verbal communication, suggesting in many instances that people learn and retain information that is presented to them visually much better than that which is only provided verbally. Thus, when thinking big picture and strategizing, make it visual! Nowadays many tools are available to make this easy, yet no one is better than a good-ol’ drawing. Have team members engage in drawing instead of writing when developing those Big, Hairy & Audacious goals. Not only that, try creating the context map using only pictures. You’ll be amazed at how this engages everyone and takes the discussion to a whole other level. 

5. Get in the “Forest”

Back to the trees and forest analogy. A hiker would only understand the forest by getting into the forest. The same applies to business. We often spend so much time dealing with small tasks, that we forget to ‘get in the business’. Spend some time getting to understand other people’s work and explore other departments within the company.  This will help you gain a fuller understanding of the big picture. 

6. Make it a FUN experience

Put the icing on the cake by making it a fun and memorable experience. During the past years, we've design Big Picture programs for several companies. Take a look at how FKP went about their Big Picture.

If you want to know whether you and your business are on course, it is big picture thinking that will provide you with the insight, even when you’re busy with the day-to-day. How do you hone your big picture thinking skills? What do you find helpful? Share your comments with us.

Are you looking for a facilitator to help out with defining/refining your Big Picture? Let us know.