What do you see? Forest? Trees? Both?

April 11, 2019



I hope you’ll indulge a short personal story that sets the scene for this post.


It goes like this...


At a point quite early in my career I learned there are two types of people in business - those who are deep into the detail and those who are happier immersing themselves in big picture work.


It was back in the day when performance reviews were quite formal affairs and for the most part focused on one’s “development needs” (the modern descriptor for “weaknesses” as they were called back then, but I digress).


It was probably my second or third ever review when my manager at the time suggested I lacked any attention to detail. At the time I shrugged it off, but after receiving the same feedback for three or four reviews in a row (from different people I might add), I guess I sensed a pattern.


So I embarked on all sorts of “remedial” activity trying to overcome my shortcoming. Sadly, nothing worked. I simply couldn’t (or, more likely didn’t want to) generate any interest in those pesky things called details. 


At the other end of the scale, I’ve encountered colleagues who aren’t happy unless they can delve into every nut and bolt of an issue. Who need to understand how “A” connects with “B” and exactly why they need to be connected in the first place. 


An example…I worked with an individual who is one of the best writers of financial education material around. Brilliant mind and an amazing ability to transfer his knowledge to the written word. He’d write and re-write articles to within an inch of their lives making sure every word was in exactly the right spot.


Not only that, but in using me as a sounding board for his works, after making one small change in a piece - maybe two or three words only - he’d insist on reading the entire article to me. Not just once, but every time he made a change. He wanted me to “get” the detail like he did.


While I found the process somewhat personally testing, I accepted he needed to work that way. Because in coming to understand I was hard-wired with one personal operating style I also learned:


  • It was highly unlikely I’d ever fundamentally change;


  • It would be unreasonable of me to think detail oriented people should change; and,


  • Neither of us can achieve optimum outcomes without the other.


Ignore the differences at your peril...


People whose working style comes with predominantly a big picture preference are quite frankly dangerous if totally left to their own devices. It’s like leaving your teenager home alone for a weekend with access to your bar fridge, your UberEats account and telling them it’d be ok to “have a few friends over”.


Their big picture view is this - “I can get all my mates over for the weekend, eat and drink everything in sight, have a great time and nobody will ever know.”


Which won’t, of course, end well. It’ll be a wow of a time but our big thinking teenager isn’t going to focus on such minor issues as the post-party clean up.


If you’re a detail-focused person reading this, don’t be sitting there nodding and congratulating yourself for being “the teenager every parent wants”.


You’re not.


The detail teenager will spend the entire weekend planning and never quite getting around to actually getting the event happening. It’s not because they don’t have friends. They have plenty. They just get bogged down in questions like which friends to invite, what time to start, what to order from UberEats, and should I really raid the bar fridge and what happens if I do….


The extreme detail teenager runs the risk of over-thinking every opportunity to the point of inactivity. 


Let’s be clear - no parent wants either of these teenagers on their own. One of each would be better because there’s every chance they’ll each keep other out of trouble. Which probably doesn’t need spelling out right now.


How does this have anything to do with business?


Here’s a graphic that shows the BusinessBlades “Purpose Framework”. 




In essence it’s a representation of our view that business purpose is (or should be) the key driver of its vision which is (or should be) the key driver of strategic plans.


Further, strategy will (or should) provide the framework within which business planning, objective setting and prioritising action plans should take place.


In other words, we see business in the context of an ongoing cycle of big picture work (purpose, vision and strategy) and more detail focused work (business planning, objective setting and action planning).


There are many reasons why we think about business like this and key among them is that it makes it clear that both kinds of thinking - big picture and detail - are critical to business success. In the absence of one or the other, the cycle will break down leading to disarray and ordinary outcomes.


This isn’t to say, by the way, that any part of the cycle is the sole domain of one style of thinking. Remember the teenager analogy? You absolutely want detail folks involved in bigger picture activity. Without them the big picture individuals will potentially run riot without any regard to practicality or even reality.


Not only will those with a detail orientation bring a dose of reality to the process but their involvement at this stage of the “purpose framework” will provide them a clear picture of where and how their individual roles fit in the bigger organisation.


Being involved with and understanding purpose, vision and strategy is known to have a positive impact on employee engagement and productivity across the board.


Likewise, it’s essential to have big picture thinkers involved in the detail tasks.




Because it helps ensure the outcomes of those detail activities remain focused on achieving the over-arching strategies of the business.


Perhaps more importantly, it helps gives those big picture folks a clear sense of the practical challenges involved with executing strategy. 


How are you hard-wired?


It’s an important question for all of us.


And realistically most people will be a bit of a mix though in our experience there’s usually a very definite tendency to prefer one thinking style over the other. 


Understanding where you sit - either at or between the extremes - and accepting that as “normal” can be something of an epiphany. As can be understanding and accepting your team members and others in the business for what they are rather than wondering why they can’t be more like you (trust me…it happens). 


One more thing…


Your planning processes and activities as shown in our “purpose framework” above should, as we suggested, involve all kinds of thinking skills. 


Be aware though, that when a particular activity doesn’t neatly match a thinking style, someone’s going to need a lot of love to bring them to the table. So your big picture folks won’t naturally fit in a session aimed at prioritising micro action plans. It’ll be torture. But they have to be there. 


Likewise the detail individuals would usually rather stab themselves in the eye than sit through a session devoted to purpose, vision and strategy. Again, though…their input (and buy in) is critical to successful execution. They have to be there.


It’s imperative those processes, workshops and activities be designed with few (preferably no) barriers to active participation across the board. It’s not easy, but worth the payoff.


How’s your business?


Do all team members “get” one another?


Are there clear expectations regarding who should participate in what planning activities?


Is each thinking style well represented at every level?


We’ve seen the good, bad and ugly when it comes to this issue. Why not give us a call to see how we can help you and your business review and revise planning processes for improved outcomes. We’d love to walk you through the “purpose framework” and discuss its application in your business.


Alternatively drop us a note and let us know the best time to call you.


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