Detail or Big Picture: The Not-So-Obvious Truth

One of the most common ways that management and individual contributors find themselves at loggerheads, is the sense that each has that the other isn’t paying enough attention to something that they value highly – the individual contributor is frustrated that leadership isn’t paying enough attention to why the subtle differences between thing A and thing B really matter, and leadership doesn’t understand why their team members cannot see the big picture.

I’ve seen this over and over again in my career.

In fact, I learned about this frustration from one of my boss’s bosses. He used to say that his direct reports could see about half of what he could… and their direct reports about a quarter… and so on down the organisational hierarchy, with each tier being able to see half of the one above.

Detail or Big Picture

I remember being a bit miffed at the time because the implication was that his vision was 20:20 and mine (in my lowly tier three role) was requiring prescription lenses at best!

And this perception that team members and their higher-ups have of each other is compelling because it’s mostly true… most of the time.

So what matters more – detail or big picture?

What I’ve come to learn – and it’s backed up by theories from some of the smartest leadership development thinkers out there – is that this is only part of the truth.

Vertical learning

In a series of White Papers coming out of the Centre for Creative Leadership, Nick Petrie outlines a very relatable metaphor for vertical learning in the context of leadership development. He says people need to think about the human mind like a drinking glass. Traditional leadership development aims to pour more and more content into the glass and eventually it overflows… no more information can go in and be retained. He suggests that instead, leadership development needs to focus on increasing the size of the glass… in other words, how we think, rather than what we think.

 Truly effective leaders – those that enable organisations to create value in highly uncertain times – are those that are able to think differently.

In his PhD dissertation titled Conscious Leadership for Sustainability: How Leaders with a Late-Stage Action Logic Design and Engage in Sustainability Initiatives, Barrett C. Brown outlines his research into the kinds of leaders that are able to drive sustainable change initiatives – change that sticks. He concludes that leaders with the three later stages of action logic (there are seven according to Harvard Business Review – you can find out more about them here – they do not have data on the eighth) – that is: Strategists; Alchemists; and Ironists – are far more likely to lead change that actually… changes.

One of the characteristics that separates these later stages from the earlier ones, is the ability to hold apparently contradictory concepts as both being true.

 Truly great leaders – those that successfully navigate the pitfalls and challenges of sustained high performance over the long term – like those Jim Collins describes in Good to Great – know that the vision and the detail matter. That if you spend all of your time focused on the vision, the details will trip you up… and if you spend your time down in the weeds focusing on the small stuff, the vision will be missing and people will lack direction – or worse, major opportunities will pass your organisation by.

How to increase your focus on the detail and the vision

 So let’s explore some ways you can build your strength at jumping between these two perspectives…

First, realise they are just two different perspectives…

I love exploring foreign cities – just walking and meandering and finding the hidden vistas and shops and secret places. But I also love climbing the tallest landmark  to get a sense of scale. I love trying to figure out the places I’ve been and then navigating from there to the coffee bar down the street or back to my hotel. You get a sense of relative distance and size. And sometimes you spot somewhere you might like to explore, that you’d never see from street level.

Different. Not better or worse.

Second, recognise which one is your preference

This is really important, because you certainly will privilege one perspective over the other, and your colleagues will be aware of it, and interpret that as a values-based judgment. In other words “she spends all her time thinking about the vision and the strategy, and yet places no value on the importance of me getting the detail right in the work I do… therefore she doesn’t value me.”

So next, start thinking about your language and the way you spend your time. And try to redress the balance – even if it feels unnatural in the beginning.

If you like to spend lots of time thinking about the future direction of the company, spend an hour working on the production line or in the customer service department. If you love interpreting spreadsheets and financial data, get out to one of your major client’s businesses and learn about their industry and the challenges they are facing.

Be deliberate about how you spend your time and energy. It will make a difference.

Then make it true for you…

 That’s all well and good, I hear you say, but I’m not really a details person… or I struggle with the big picture because its too vague and insubstantial…

True. Both true.

But there are things you can do to strengthen your leadership muscles…

Change your narrative

The stories we tell hold great power. They carry our ‘truth’.

Detail or Big Picture

We talk to ourselves in stories all the time – often we’re completely unaware of it. So listen up, and pay attention. If you hear yourself saying things like this…

  • People are either good at detail or big picture – you can’t do both
  • I’m not a details person
  • I’m not good at vision or strategy
  • My boss is the visionary, she needs me to focus on the details
  • My team just doesn’t get it… they can’t see things the way I do

…catch yourself. While all these things might be currently true, they don’t have to be. So change your story:

  • People might prefer either detail or big picture – but can improve both
  • I am learning to pay attention to details
  • My role hasn’t required me to focus on vision or strategy, but I’m going to learn how
  • There are actually important details my boss needs to be aware of, and my job is to understand the vision and my contribution to it
  • Other people might see things differently – I value that

Doing this will enable you to demonstrate you value your non-preferred trait and you’ll actually change your own abilities over time.

Ask great questions

I love great questions. They are powerful paradigm shifters. They enable breakthrough thinking and at their best, they allow the person asking to unlock insights and experience that was previously locked away – either in their own mind, or the minds of their colleagues.

Problem Solving

If you know that your preference is for big picture thinking, here are some questions you might consider asking to ensure you haven’t lost the trees for the wood…

  • What are the specific impacts of this decision on [particular customer or colleague’s role] that I need to be aware of?
  • If my assumptions about market growth are out by 5%, what are the implications in terms of specific processes, products and people?
  • What would the receptionist think about this?
  • What one fact could radically alter my assumptions?
  • How can I ensure I have adequate knowledge of the details that matter?

If you know that your preference is in the details, here are some questions you might consider asking to ensure you aren’t seeing the world with blinkers on…

  • What might my boss know that would change the relative impact of this information/data?
  • How would I explain this to my nana/grandma so that she would understand?
  • How can I turn this information/data into a story that means something to my peers?
  • What makes this data/information significant to the organisation’s strategic direction?
  • What could I do differently that would help other people value this information more?

Practice empathy

As our leadership practice evolves, we become more and more aware that not everyone thinks the same way we do. Not everyone processes information in the same way. Not everyone responds to stress and pressure in the same way we do. Not everyone cares about spelling and grammar as much as we do.

Pick someone you respect, and think about the issue from their perspective. Particularly someone who you suspect (or know) might be opposite to you in terms of their preference for big picture or detail focus. Imagine a day in their role. Think about the issues that might arise for them. The ways their perspective might shape the way they interpret events.

And regardless of whether you are a detail or big picture thinker, acknowledge that organisations and teams need both – value both. And accept that you can do both… if you put your mind to it.

More Than This

My new book, More Than This: Your Heroic Quest to Find Inspiration, Intent, Impact and Insight in a Broken World, is exactly what you need to:

  • Clarify and articulate your passion – to find your why
  • Gain the courage and commitment to do something about it
  • Learn and strengthen the skills you need to create massive impact
  • Stay true, analyse your results and gain powerful insights

More Than This

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2 thoughts on “Detail or Big Picture: The Not-So-Obvious Truth”

    • Hi Ken!
      I’m really pleased you found it useful – I’ve been pretty inconsistent with my writing over the past couple of months, wondering if I should wrap it up… so knowing there are people finding value will help me recommit! Obviously that wasn’t your point in stopping by, but I appreciate it all the same! 😊



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