How to think big

How to think big - Article by Greg Alder

Clients are funny things. They like to believe that they can see the big picture. That’s one of the things that helps them feel that they’re at the top of their game. It’s one of the things that helps them feel rightful leaders of their businesses. They also like to believe that their most senior and most trusted external advisers also see the big picture. They like to feel that you, as their lawyer or financial adviser, see the same big picture they see.

The reality – danger if you will – is that the person in your organisation who best understands the big picture (yes, that’s you) is often way too busy on other stuff – networking, taking care of business, pitching, hiring. Frankly, the people who are now looking after your client’s business are either too junior, too incompetent or just too busy reading all the documents supplied by your client to ever stand up, look around and assess the situation. They really have no idea of the world beyond the current brief, current product or current project. They just don’t see the bigger picture. Brutal, but true.

Don’t get me wrong. The world needs small picture people. They get stuff done. Small picture people see an action. And that’s it. They take instruction and perform that task. Nothing more.

Chess players are big picture people. A player goes into a game with a plan. As with so many plans, it often has to be modified as their opponent’s plan becomes clear. But no pawn gets moved without the player understanding that move’s role in the dual plans of protecting his or her own king and trapping the opponent’s.

Meerkats strike me as good big picture guys. They always seem to be standing tall, heads darting left and right, scanning the horizon for anything unusual or threatening. I imagine it would be really difficult to take a meerkat by surprise.

Do you ever watch wildlife programs on Discovery channel? Notice how those creepy crocodiles operate? They just lie there in the murky shallows, mostly submerged, looking for all the world like slimy and knobby rocks (at least that’s how I imagine they must look to their unsuspecting and not-too-bright prey).

Anyway, along comes a young and thirsty gazelle. The gazelle trots down to the water’s edge, lowers her head and starts slurping. The water tastes good. It’s high summer. The plains are dusty. It’s been a long journey since last night’s resting spot. The gazelle is so concentrated on slaking her thirst that she’s totally shocked when the rock launches into life, grabs her around the throat and drags her to her death.

A friend of mine lost his senior job with a global FMCG (fast-moving consumer goods) manufacturer because, in his words, he was too busy taking care of day-to-day business to think about taking care of his career.

Career is big picture. Work is small picture.

Five-year plan is big picture. The day’s agenda is small picture.

Big picture thinking is impressive. Small picture stuff isn’t.

That doesn’t mean that small picture stuff isn’t important. It is. But it’s unlikely to get your client’s juices flowing. Nor yours, for that matter.

If you don’t know what the big picture is, you can’t participate in your client’s big picture conversations. You can’t suggest big picture strategies. You can’t identify big opportunities. You can’t warn of unforseen big dangers. You can’t anticipate the unfolding of big events.

To be blunt, you can’t dazzle your client. Clients like to be dazzled.

Point out something that they mightn’t have thought of themselves and they’ll be impressed. Just don’t point it out in front of their visiting global head honcho.

Can you learn big picture thinking?

If big picture thinking is so important (I can hear you thinking), how come more people don’t devote more time to helping more people do it?

Well, many have tried.

The Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality claims to “have devoted a significant amount of effort in institutionalizing “Big Picture” thinking into our processes and our staff”. Whether or not the Department was successful in this, I don’t know. Whether or not the employees of the Department are known throughout the land as big picture thinkers, I don’t know. How their big picture thinking manifests itself, I also don’t know. But at least the Department has tried.
Some employers have employed psychologists to devise job interview questions that will indicate that a prospective employee has the big-picture-thinking gene. I can see how this might be useful. Leaders generally need to be big picture thinkers. (They also often need small detail nitpickers as assistants – or nothing would get done.)

Have psychologists been successful in devising such questions? Again, I don’t know.

In most businesses it is clear that big picture thinking is seen as a valuable skill. Clients expect big picture thinking from you and your staff.

How do you think big?

  1. Think beyond the task at hand to the immediate consequence of that task. Then look beyond that consequence to a second consequence. And then a third. And so on. See more than the jigsaw piece.
  2. Look beyond the product to the category and from the category to the audience. Stop focusing on features and focus instead on benefits, uses and lifestyles.
  3. Look beyond the obvious competitors. Understand what else your audience might spend their money on. A cinema’s competitor isn’t another cinema, but every entertainment option available at a comparable price.
  4. Understand what business you’re in. It’s rarely the obvious. It’s rarely about the product and usually about the experience.
  5. Stop setting business objectives. Ditch your Mission. Start creating a Vision – a big, hairy, audacious goal. Make it part of your DNA.
  6. Make sure that everything you do – new clients gained, new services launched – helps bring you closer to realising your Vision.

Remember that every client provides the means to your own glorious big picture. Each is a piece in your own 2000-piece jigsaw puzzle. You know the one – with the boat, the beach house and the gold ingots.

This is a tough juggling act: Doing enough to be a valued part of your clients’ big picture – but never forgetting your own.

Are you good at juggling? Are you a big picture person?

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