The importance of big-picture thinking

“If you just focus on the smallest details, you never get the big picture right.” -- Leroy Hood, American scientist

Most of us begin our careers working through the ranks of people executing tasks -- early success comes from correctly completing work while focusing on quality, time and budget. Doing a good job at the duties that were assigned to you is what first got you noticed by those in charge. Eventually, however, we all must learn to not only see the day-to-day details of the job but also to also consider the larger impact and overall plan of our business or organization.

This can be a difficult shift for some, transitioning into letting go -- just a little -- of all the habits and tricks that have always worked so far. If you’re looking to take that next step and become known as a big-picture thinker, read on to check your habits and better plan on a larger scale.

Habit No. 1: Overanalyzing

Being someone who is ready with all the data and analysis is great -- it’s even good to be fully aware of what the data says at a high level. Your decisions can be guided by solid data, but you shouldn’t be living and dying by it. Analysis is fine when it comes to improving process and even in setting direction, but leave the deep dives to others and then have them present the information to you quarterly. You can use the numbers to course-correct and steer your larger-picture plan.

Habit No. 2: Fixating on results

Having a strong drive toward achieving results can serve you well early in your career – managers appreciate a desire to deliver ever-increasing quality and yield. While this is admirable early on, not every problem can be solved or every business goal achieved simply by doing more. Leaders must be able to take a step back from grinding out the daily performance metrics and hand the small projects over to others. Build a team that you can trust to deliver peak results without micromanagement, so that you can invest your energy on a broader focus and higher value tasks.

Habit No. 3: Managing reactively

It can be invaluable in day-to-day activities to be quick on your feet – a nimble thinker and someone who is able to adjust to every situation, tweaking and adjusting your strategy as you go to get the job done. On a larger scale however, constantly reacting to every change and bump can leave you seeming panicky, indecisive and too focused on the minutiae of the day. When you’re looking at the big picture, small issues only factor so much into the overall plan. When your vision spans months or years, what happens once on a Tuesday morning is only of minor concern. Be sure your head is in the bigger game, and you’re thinking about the long-term strategy you’re trying to achieve.

Habit No. 4: Going solo

The independent go-getter who single-handedly completes projects is who everyone thinks of when they think of promising new employees. Being skilled and effective on your own is key, but creating a big-picture plan often requires thinking out loud. Don’t go it alone; find yourself someone you can think with, brainstorm with and bounce ideas around with. It’s a lot easier to think about bigger goals and a long term plan when you have other people to discuss with and to challenge your thinking.

Habit No. 5: Overfilling the calendar

It’s easy to spend all your time on everyday activities. Sometimes it can seem like there aren’t enough hours in the day to get it all done, much less set aside time to consider the future. If your habits tend toward being 100% busy every day, don’t forget to take a step back. Put a few hours a week in your calendar for planning and strategy. Whether you spend the time alone or with others, the key is to set aside critical minutes for big-picture thinking. It may even become second nature to you eventually, but in the meantime, be sure you’re taking those moments to dream big.

There’s no need to completely abandon the skills that were the foundation of your career – many of the traits that served you well will still be useful and will help you manage a strong, effective team. Just don’t forget to let go a little and allow yourself to imagine the larger possibilities. As your responsibilities grow and change, the better you will do if you can let others take care of the daily details while you steer the course toward the big-picture goals of your organization.


Joel Garfinkle is an executive leadership coach. He recently conducted a Newly Promoted Coaching Program in which he worked with a leader who was recently promoted and had to shake the overanalyzing habit and focus her energy on building a stronger, more strategic team. He has written seven books, including "Getting Ahead: Three Steps to Take Your Career to the Next Level." More than 10,000 people subscribe to his Fulfillment@Work newsletter. If you sign up, you’ll receive the free e-book 41 Proven Strategies to Get Promoted Now!

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