The Art of Big Picture Thinking

“You can’t see the big picture, when you’re in the frame.” – Les Brown

Executives and high-level managers in organizations are generally assumed to be responsible for strategic “big picture” thinking. They are tasked with establishing priorities and shaping the vision of the organization for all their stakeholders, including their employees.

But each of us, as leaders in our own work and life, can employ this type of thinking. A big picture approach can prove very illuminating when we are trapped in a work dilemma, overwhelmed by duties, or just feeling uncertain about what to do in any area of our lives. 

When creating their work, visual artists must focus on the tiniest details –- an individual brushstroke, the representation of shadow and light in a painting, or the shape of the fingernail that will become a tiny part of a figurative statue. But these artists also need to be able to envision the overall finished piece in order to achieve the result they hope to convey to their audience. 

The same holds true for theater and film directors, choreographers, orchestra conductors and the like.  Of course, they must expend a great deal of energy refining and overseeing each detail as necessary to complete the project, but as they determine the best camera angle for a shot, or coach an actor on a line-reading, or demonstrate a dance step, they must also be considering the wider message, theme, or vision of the completed work.  If they neglect to do so, the piece may lack continuity, be unengaging, or even unintelligible to the audience.  

We can apply this same metaphor to business-related scenarios. Big picture thinking when employed on an individual basis can be an effective tool to solve work problems and achieve more satisfying outcomes.  

Often when dealing with work assignments, we simply want to be able to check some project off the list, marking it as completed so that we can move onto the next task.  But, what happens if we are so overwhelmed with a heavy workload, a project we don’t quite understand how to complete, or an impossible deadline?  What are some strategies we can employ?  How can we approach these challenges like a leader? 

You guessed it! We can start by employing some big picture thinking! 

The first step in this process is simple, but it’s also a lifesaver:  Step away

Even if it is for only 15 minutes, make sure to set aside some time to “step back.” Use this time for a mental breather from the details of the issue at hand.  I would encourage you to take a walk or find a way to physically get away from your workspace or computer.  Take some deep breaths to steady yourself. If you meditate or pray, take a few moments to do that.  

By removing yourself from the nitty-gritty of a sticky problem to see the entire project and its desired outcome from a fresh point-of-view -– that of a leader not a participant –- a new perspective can evolve which can prove very illuminating.

Let’s say you have been given a task with what seem like impossible expectations and a fast-approaching deadline. The tendency is to feel the sense of “overwhelm” so strongly that you don’t even know how to start.  We’ve all been there.

Instead of panicking (which is a natural reaction –- so start by forgiving yourself!), take this opportunity to consider the goal and what the strategy to accomplish it might look like as if YOU were the one dictating the outcome as opposed to the one completing the task.  

This big picture thinking could include really delving into the purpose or mission of the work you are doing.  This approach can help us to align ourselves emotionally and thus feel more motivated to achieve results.  It may also involve mentally, or in written form, reviewing the challenges and thinking about how you would advise someone else to get it accomplished. Temporarily “erase” yourself from the picture to remove the sense of personal burden. No longer the individual producer, you are positioned to think more strategically about the tasks with the overall project, department, or organization in mind. 

The outcome of this deeper and broader “big picture” consideration may be to help you get better organized to attack the work, or it may reveal to you that the goal is not reachable as currently planned.  

You may discover that the work could be achieved with specific tools you don’t currently have, or with assistance from a coworker, or with an extended timeline that involves smaller milestones along the way. It could be that your manager has not been clear enough with you about their expectations and what success or failure would look like. 

You now have information you didn’t have before this process began!  But, now what?  You’ve looked at the big picture and it has revealed some things to you, but you still need to get the task accomplished. 

Ideally, once you have looked at things from this wider perspective you have a better understanding of what needs to be done and how to do it.  But, you may also come to the conclusion that you really do need additional support, tools, or training to get the objective accomplished.  Using your big picture analysis, you can better understand why this is so.  You can then more confidently approach your manager or supervisor with appropriate questions, or clearly articulate what you feel is needed to get you to the necessary outcome. 

Though I can’t promise that every manager will be open to your suggestions, in my experience most managers will see this type of deliberate and strategic engagement as employing initiative in a positive way.  Ultimately, you and your supervisor have the same goal: to see the assignment successfully completed!  And now, with your “big picture” knowledge, you can be a powerful participant in achieving individual and departmental or organizational goals. 

By taking a “big picture” approach, you have distinctly changed your orientation to the work. You are now thinking like a leader!  And it is never too early (or too late) to refine and employ your leadership skills which can prove useful and rewarding in all aspects of your life. 

To share your experiences, discuss this topic further, or get some support navigating work-related issues you are facing, please feel free to contact me at elizabeth@artofwork.blog.  I welcome the opportunity to exchange ideas with you! 

4 thoughts on “The Art of Big Picture Thinking

  1. Judith Wagner

    meant to tell you i enjoyed the piece – but i do think the photo of the young woman looking at the renaissance (?) painting is not the best way to illustrate your message. it is very busy, full of symbolism, and wouldn’t (imo) resonate with youngish and less worldly people than you. i wonder if you can find a picture of a sunset over the ocean (you and/or laura gave Bob such a one many years back. or a picture of a tree… something that connotes peacefulness .. unless i missed a central message of the value of getting away to clear one’s head. maybe you were trying to say something sort of busy and confusing would clear the brain of the confusion it replaces? just good for thought. your pieces always make me think. J

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

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    1. Thanks for the feedback, Judy. I definitely appreciate your thoughts on the particular painting in the photo. Perhaps it didn’t translate appropriately, but the selection was meant to represent someone getting back from all the details (as mentioned in the artist’s metaphor in the first part of the blog) in an effort to better see the whole story — “the big picture” — so to speak. My internet search didn’t yield the exact piece of art I might have chosen, but that was the idea I was going for. Thank you so much for the input and for reading the piece!

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