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6 ways to develop big picture thinking (and stop drowning in detail)

“Take a step back”, “Look at the big picture”, “Think about it in the grand scheme of things". These snippets of advice tend to go in one ear and out the other if you’re naturally a detail-oriented person. Often, they can feel like a waste of time - why invest in all that fluffy thinking when there’s just so much to actually get done?

But what if we told you that scientific research has revealed that “big picture thinking” is linked to venture success for entrepreneurs? That those entrepreneurs are 30-48% more likely to think in broad terms than the rest of us?

Big picture thinking is important for the rest of us too

Big picture thinking isn't only the key to getting ahead for entrepreneurs, it's also a crucial skill for many career trajectories, especially if you're aiming to snag a coveted leadership spot.

Personally, I’ve come a long way from being a detail oriented person who used to be in tizzy every time something went (mildly) wrong.

It could be an assignment delayed by a few minutes. The chicken’s marination lacked an ingredient. Or a book that a friend borrowed, but returned with a dog-eared page (for the record, I still don’t like that. So please don’t go anywhere near my books).

But, like I said, I’ve come a long way.

In my big picture vs small picture plan, I try to focus on the big picture even if smaller details weigh me down sometimes.

But it’s not easy to encourage big picture thinking. It takes a ton of work and mental reminders such as, “how will this matter to me in 3 days, 3 years, 3 decades…” 

Are you also working on sharpening your big picture thinking too? Let’s dive into how you can become a big picture person in this post. 

I’ll show you how to think big and how developing the ability will help you achieve your goals and feel more fulfilled in work and life in general. Along the way, I’ll share insights from Graham Richardson, a world renown coach for senior executives and the Founder of Art of Mentoring.

I’ll also help you figure out where you stand in the detail oriented vs big picture frame. But first, let’s explore what big picture thinking is.

What is big picture thinking?

Play along with me here for a bit: imagine driving on the London bridge. Do you look at the left and the right only? Hopefully not.

You’ve trained yourself to cover both your left and right sides, as well as look far ahead in front of you.

(If you only focused on a tiny word on the bumper sticker of the vehicle directly in front of you, you'd risk getting into a pretty bad accident.) 

That’s essentially what big picture thinking is — looking at the entirety of a plan or situation.

Or, as Graham defines it, “seeing the big picture means seeing the whole. The ability to comprehend the context of the matter. The system that is at work.”

You get to grips with the scope and focus on it, strategizing what will work and what won’t. Put another way, big picture thinking is the ability to envision something.

In contrast, a detailed oriented person delves into the specifics of a project or process. In doing so, they may lose sight of the plan or the big picture. 

But, this doesn’t mean that one thinking modality is right and another wrong. Instead, “they are both necessary to function effectively” in Graham’s experience of 20 years of coaching, facilitating, and mentoring executives.

Big picture thinking example

Of course, no number of definitions are enough to understand something. So I asked Graham for an example of big picture thinking.

Here’s what he shared, “Think about building an industrial fishing trawler that can harvest massive tonnage of fish in one outing. It would be very efficient, cost effective, and less labor intensive. The big picture would reveal overfishing of the seas, massive bycatch loss, loss of livelihood to smaller fishing businesses, economic devastation of fishing villages, possible export of economic value overseas by large corporations and loss of tax revenue, etc. An even bigger picture view would be seeing the matter of feeding people, or animals, and the most sustainable means of sustaining food security.” 

It’s making sense now, isn’t it?

Why is seeing the bigger picture important?

You might be wondering, ‘what is the benefit of having a solid idea of the big picture?’ While both big picture vs detail-oriented thinking are crucial and, in fact, complement each other.  

Sure, details make up the big picture. But zooming in on the details only can be a bit messy to deal with (queue: stress at each step of the way).

By thinking big, you’re less likely to fret over the details that won’t matter in the long run.

Not to mention, a big picture person is likely to see how an obstacle impacts the big picture and how that can turn into an opportunity – a real plus if you’re leading a team.

However, things aren’t all that simple and neither big picture thinking nor detail orientation would work in isolation. In fact, Graham suggests, “big picture thinking on its own would struggle to get anything actually done.”

The correct answer then, you ask? Graham has it for you. “Both big picture thinking and detail thinking are important. Anyone who is prone to be in one or other mode by default will limit their ability to contribute to the whole picture.”

So, how do you know if you’re detail oriented or a big picture thinker?

You’ll get a better understanding of big picture vs detail-oriented when you look at them as “universal versus specific thinking.” Graham shares some other common words for big picture thinking: 

  • ‘head in the clouds dreaming,’ 
  • ‘pie in the sky,’ 
  • ‘40,000 feet.’ 

On the other hand, detail orientation is often described as, 

  • ‘down in the weeds’, 
  • ‘head down’, 
  • ‘highly organized,’ 
  • and so on. 

One way to find out whether you’re a big picture thinker or a specifics’ person is seeing what you tend to focus on naturally. 

  • Do you look at the detailed ins and outs of a project? 
  • Perhaps you give so many details in your reports that your manager finds it annoying?
  • Or, do you tend to keep a bird’s eye view on things, and feel frustrated when working on projects where you can’t see how it connects to a broader plan?

If you look closely, you’ll see that both types of thinking are needed in a workplace. Graham thinks, “it can often be useful to have complementary skills working together.” 

Big picture thinking – known as ‘breath’ in the F4S context – is typically great for managers and entrepreneurs so they can get projects rolling, and understand how multiple. 

Our research also confirms that ‘seeing the forest through the trees’ is a behavior linked with successful entrepreneurs. But skipping the details clearly isn’t something that professions like software developers can ignore.

So, go ahead and use the tool to understand your motivations. Graham uses F4S for coaching his clients too. 

He comments, “F4S is a very good tool for measuring preferences in many dimensions, including the propensity, or otherwise for big picture thinking. The awareness that F4S provides is a great enabler for people to develop flexibility in how they operate, if they choose to.”

Can you be big picture and detail oriented?

It’s entirely possible that you’re both.

In fact, Graham has met such a person. He shares a person he met who was “a master at what he calls zooming. He had a vision, an ambition, an intention for the business that he wanted to achieve for the business, its owners, its staff and its customers. This big picture thinking was turned into what at the time was called a business plan, including a triple bottom line.”

But, in addition to these big picture goals, this person also worked, “with the executive team to translate all of this into specific, actionable responsibilities and accountabilities.”

Graham explains this zooming aspect of the person helped him to, “shift perspective from high level thinking to detail perspective with ease depending on what circumstance required.”

This, Graham suggests, in an excellent leadership characteristic.

How to focus on the big picture: 6 effective strategies to help you

Around 1959 or 1960, Dashrath Manjhi, a laborer in India’s Gehlaur village lost his injured wife because the nearest hospital was about 45 minutes away. 22 years later, the same man had carved a 10-meter long path through the rocky ridge – all with a hammer and chisel – that chopped the travel time to 15 minutes.

Manjhi is an extreme example of seeing the big picture — instead of getting overwhelmed by the details of how he was going to get it done, he focused on the broader issue at hand: he didn’t want anyone else to suffer his wife’s fate. So, he worked tirelessly for years to prevent that from happening again.

Wondering how you can think big too? Fortunately, you don't need to spend 22 years breaking on back-breaking work to build up your big picture muscles.

Read on to learn six effective strategies that can help you quickly see the bigger picture:

1. Identify habits that limit your big picture thinking ability

Our natural preferences often prevent us from blue sky thinking. So, the first step: break bad habits. Here’s a 3-step framework:

  • Stop seeking perfection: F4S research correlates attention to detail in early stage ventures with failure. If you’re constantly fiddling with things to make them better, delving into more and more detail in the process, you need to press pause, stand back and look for the wider opportunities.
  • Don’t sweat the small stuff: If you spend sleepless nights worrying about insignificant problems in your business, like where the new plant pot will sit in the office, you need to take a deep breath and let it go. While some problem-solving is needed in an early stage venture, our research shows that a higher focus on goal orientation, working towards a vision or goal (the BIG picture!) is more likely to lead to business success.
  • Learn to delegate: If your business is full-on and there are limited time and reserves, you may feel that it’s faster and better to action things yourself, rather than work as a team. Unless you’re a sole founder, our research shows that those who share responsibility and work collaboratively are likely to achieve venture success and make room for standing back and thinking strategically too. Bonus! 

Overcome these three obstacles, and you’d be well on your path to becoming a big picture person.

2. See things from a different lens: dive into what are big picture questions

Questioning helps you connect the dots from your actions/tasks to your big goal. 

In this book, The Magic of Thinking Big, PH.D. author, David J. Schwartz calls this, “see what can be, not just what is.” A good starting point is to ask yourself, ‘what am I trying to achieve?’

That’s exactly what you need to do. Graham advises you ask the following big picture questions:

  • “Is there anybody else who might be affected by this?
  • If you did this, can you think of any unintended consequences that might occur?
  • Are there any ethical boundaries to consider?
  • How could the idea become a lever for social change?”

Another good tip for big picture thinking: ask yourself, ‘what is it that I’m not asking myself?’

Better yet, sit with someone who challenges you (and you trust) and ask them what you aren’t asking yourself. You can also bounce off ideas with them when your big picture goals are up against the ropes.  

3. Think big by looking up

Graham calls this big picture generating practice, “the chunking strategy.” The super basic rundown is: 

  • Whenever you’re focusing on the big picture, look up. This is what Graham calls, “inductive reasoning or chunking up.”
  • And look down when not seeing the big picture. This is “deductive reasoning or chunking down.”

You can also resort to “abductive reasoning or chunking sideways.”

Our expert elaborates on this process, “Abducting will take us to creative, disruptive, chaordic or pivotal thinking. A nice example of chunking reasoning is to think of transport. You can start with a motor car. If you chunk down, you might go to wheel, then rim, then rubber, then tread and even road. If you chunk up, you might go to transport, then to travel, then to vacation, then to wellbeing, etc.”

Of course, you can always enlist a mentor or coach’s help here to facilitate your thinking as Graham adds. You can even benchmark yourself against their skills and see how your natural inclination to step back and think more broadly improves over time.

4. Use bulleted lists to think big, and then chunk down

This is a trick I use on a regular basis – make a bulleted list of the big picture (I call them big picture pillars) and then add sub-bullets to each pillar step.

Now step back and look at what you can add or remove from the sub-bullet pointers to keep the needle moving forward.

For instance, when I was working on making my business visible, I was drowning in a sea of social media options: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, and so on. So, I made a bulleted list of my big picture plan and could see which social platform was best poised to help me achieve my business goals. Then, I knew everything else was extraneous and I gave myself permission to stop drowning in busy work, and start focusing on the platform that would be most effective.

So why did this work for me and will (hopefully) for you too?

Because bullet points give you the visuals on your big picture. It’s challenging to connect the dots when you can’t see them. It’s also tough to translate your big picture if you don’t have it in front of you.

Like Elon Musk advises, “It is important to view knowledge [big picture] as sort of semantic tree. Make sure you understand the fundamental principles, i.e. the trunk and big branches [the pillar bullets], before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang on to [sub-bullets].”

What’s more, bullet points are easy to access and revise anytime. This, in turn, provides clarity.

5. Start journaling or mind mapping

You can write or draw your plan too. When you put your internal prattle on paper, you can easily spot where your plan is flailing or how it can be shaped to fit the bigger picture. 

Creating a big picture thinking journal or mind map doesn’t need a ton of work.

To begin with, note down your big picture, followed by the small details pestering you. “The trick is to make sure that it represents not only the big picture, but that it represents the detail, or actionable elements as well. You can deliberately mark out zones for making sure all bases are covered,” in Graham’s words. Then record your thoughts to see if they deviate from your big picture plan. 

Graham says you can, “use a funnel representation, or a well-constructed project map.”

6. Schedule in some thinking time

Often, when I rush to make a decision, I end up feeling sorry about it. When this happens, it's usually for one of three reasons:

  • I’ve taken the decision later in the day when I’m drained from the day’s work and nearing decision fatigue.
  • I’m pressed for time, which means I’m not calculating everything, not looking at all the angles of the picture, not linking the choice with my big picture goals
  • I’m multitasking – calling the shots while doing something else – which takes my ability to perform down by up to 40% 

If you find yourself nodding yes to any or all of these points, pencil in some uninterrupted, thinking time to your schedule. This space is crucial to making better decisions that rely on the big picture. 

You’ll also be able to rate your priorities better – what matters in the big picture, how it contributes to the big picture and so on. This will help you stop hustling so hard, and ditch the shiny object syndrome.

Go ahead and focus on the big picture

Now that you’ve the game plan for detail orientation vs big picture, start flexing your big picture thinking muscles. In doing so, you’re likely to improve your odds of success. Yep, that’s what the data says – successful entrepreneurs tend to think more broadly than the average population by a solid 30-48%.

No matter which field you belong to – an aspiring entrepreneur, someone who’s putting together a dream team, or polishing your leadership skills, big picture thinking can help open up, “innovative and unexpected creative paths, ideas and solutions” as Graham shares.

Keen to see how high you rank on big picture thinking compared to successful entrepreneurs and business builders?

Join F4S today and find out for free.

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