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  • Writer's pictureDannielle K Pearson

The Importance of Seeing the Big Picture

A few years ago, I read an article that forced me to pause and the ask the question, does thinking myopically create most of humanities problems? There is no doubt that things happen in life that are seemingly out of our control but are we more in the driver seat than we think? The article was on “Honeybee Economics,” while it’s become well known that bees, like other species, are in population decline due to a changing climate and use of industrial chemicals, this article was calling out a bee population in decline due to being overstressed and overworked. Bees naturally work in the warmer months, and rest in the cooler months but due to the demand for honey, bee pollen, beeswax and an assortment of other consumer products, many beekeepers force their bees to work year-round. Some beekeepers will even ship their bees geographically to warmer climates when the seasons change to achieve a 365-day work cycle. This is a problem because it interrupts the natural cycle, nature intended bees were not meant to produce honey at an industrial scale. It also introduces a whole host of issues from greater levels of disease amongst bee populations, and most importantly a decline in the bee population. This way of thinking is what I like to refer to as “Jack Welching the planet” our attempt to industrialise a system that was not built for a hyper focus on output and efficiency and actively ignores the natural order of things. It would be easy to relegate this observation to “nature” but the reality is we apply this same narrow lens to ourselves, and by in large the companies we work in, for, and stand up.

I commonly work with organisations that know they face systemic challenges but pausing to address them will get in the way of output, with the most common response “we will address the underlying issues only after we get tactical wins on the board.” This sentiment is almost always paired with, we’llfake it till we make it” a mantra for navigating both the known and unknown. But does this really help, or do we just think it does? Like the bee colony example, we are focused on the outcome rather than the systems that are built to govern that outcome. No doubt commercial beekeepers will benefit from an increase supply of honey to satiate consumer demands but eventually the natural system will breakdown. This breakdown will create a much larger problem than a market decline in honey availability.

Unfortunately, in our haste to get runs on the board, we have created a world where ideation and doing are at odds, it’s “either or” “we either think big picture or we focus on the outcomes, but we can’t do both.” I assert this pattern of thinking is not only broken but unproductive and is the driver behind creating many of the avoidable problems we face in the world today, both in the corporate world and beyond. Harvard Business Review (HBR) released a paper in 2017, on a McKinsey study completed from 2001 - 2014. McKinsey followed a series of companies and tracked their progress over 13-years. Empirically, they found that the organisations that applied big picture thinking and focused on long term value creation, versus short term gain boasted earnings roughly 47% greater than their counterparts; other benefits include: higher profit margin, greater market capitalisation, and lower churn rates. The McKinsey study draws attention to the value of seeing the forest for the trees, and the need to view the system holistically. Like the beekeepers, if they were aware their actions would create the inevitable extinction of their workforce, this would most assuredly create an urgent need to pivot. When hyper focused on the short run you are likely to meet or even exceed expectations however it does not give you much time to avoid the proverbially cliff that lies ahead. Below are five key “Big Picture” questions that can help course correct, and ensure your tactics are not sending your down an eventual dead end.

1. Do we have all the information needed to make an informed decision?

In other words, do we know what the underlying challenge or opportunity is, or are we relying on our own opinions? I am a big fan of “gut feel,” but I am also aware that “gut feel” can be corrupted by personal bias and that is a critical distinction. MIT conducted a study and found leaders that combine gut feel with data, outperform organisations that are either solely data driven, or solely gut driven. The next time you sit down to a strategic offsite, make sure you assess whether you have a clear view of your environment, before soliciting individual views on the direction the organisation should take.

2. Will these actions address the underlying issue or desired end state?

We live in a fast-paced world. When I was an Account Executive at Salesforce, it was well known that “you are only as good as your last deal”, new month, what you did last month no longer applies. While this is the reality of the world, we currently live in that does not mean we need to operate under myopic terms. Being clear on whether the actions you are taking are leading you to your desired result or steering you in an alternate direction, is paramount. We can put the bees on a year-round clock but eventually that will lead to a population of bees that will not be able to sustain the demand.

3. Is there a better way?

This is one of the leading questions I commonly ask and often “search for” when evaluating company data. What patterns are emerging from the data? Based on those patterns are the actions being taken the right ones? Just because something has been tried and true and works for others, does not mean it will work for you. Asking the question forces you to search for the answer – is there a better way?

4. What is the impact of these actions?

In truth, there is an element of fake it to you make it in life; it has value but faking it is a short-term plan. If the actions you are taking do not strengthen your foothold, and act as a strong baseline for future growth then I’d argue they are not fruitful, and a course correction is needed. Life is uncertain and forever changing but that does not mean avoidable chaos is productive.

5. What is the best path forward? (Embracing the Butterfly Effect)

Talk to any athlete whether they are aware of it or not and the butterfly effect has a lot to do with their success or failure. Small incremental changes (improvements or impediments) over time are what make the biggest differences. The reality is most ideas aren’t turned into immediate outcomes. Understanding where you are today, and the steps that you need to take to achieve your vision for tomorrow, is full of incremental steps. Taking a step back to interrogate whether your roadmap is achievable, is critical.

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