It has become part of the business lexicon, “he’s a big picture guy”, [by contrast] “she’s a details woman”. It is the sort of thing that you hear, file away and which maybe becomes something that colours your view of the person in question going forward.
You often hear the two things said in one breath, “Jane is great at strategy, but isn’t a details person”, “Joe can deal with the nitty gritty, but can’t grasp the big picture”. What could be more sensible to say than that? Doesn’t it chime with the old adage about not seeing the wood for the trees?
I have touched on this area a few times before. In Pigeonholing – A tragedy, I suggested that because someone is good in one area of life, it does not automatically mean that they are bad in another. In Vision vs Pragmatism I argued that both qualities were necessary for success in projects and that they could be embodied in the same person.
To employ a metaphor, in my favourite team sport, cricket, while most players tend to specialise in either batting or bowling (cf. pitching for baseball fans), a significant subset are called all-rounders and do both. While some all-rounders are bits and pieces cricketers, others excel at each discipline and would merit selection on either.
There have been many great all-round cricketers over the centuries, but most people would agree that Jacques Kallis of South Africa is probably the finest currently playing. At a much less lofty level, I used to be a wicket keeper (cf. catcher) and opening batsman, so people who are able to do more than one thing to a reasonable level of competence are not that uncommon in sport.
Foundations of sand?
However, in the more business-focussed case of big picture versus details, I would go further than merely asserting that some people can be good at both. In my opinion, it is rather hard to form an accurate big picture without at least some feeling for the details. If you do not have this firm foundation, then what is there to guarantee any legitimacy for the high-level conclusions that you draw. Findings without analysis may be correct sometimes, but it is more likely that they will not be.
Does that mean that in all circumstances minute forensic scrutiny must be paid to every single detail before deciding what to do? Is my claim the enemy of crisp decision-making and an acknowledgement that analysis paralysis is inevitable? I would say no.
Based on experience, new situations may often remind us of old ones and thereby bring ideas to mind on how to best proceed. This however is also based on the understanding of details, just historical ones, coupled with a facility to make connections between current and prior scenarios. My view is that when your gut instinct tells you to do something, it is worth pausing to kick the tyres. A sensible amount of checking of the facts is probably worth while most of the time.
A gifted Mathematician or Theoretical Physicist may develop a feeling for the general shape of a solution to a problem before they attack the details. However this is thought to be based on sub-concious analysis of lower-level factors. Whatever drives this phenomenon, the general shape of a solution is not the same as a solution and the latter will normally require a lot of painstaking work to realise.
Mulling over these analogous observations, maybe some people who claim to focus exclusively on the big picture are simply covering up the fact that they don’t have the inclination to check that their perspective is valid before offering it.
Look before it leaps
Of course there are exceptions. As a massive feline rears towards your throat, pausing to assess whether it is a leopard or lion may not be overly valuable. But in the situations we normally face, there is generally time for at least a little reflection and to dig a little deeper. To ensure accuracy without compromising speed.
The dazzling images and vibrant colours on your 55″ HD TV are there courtesy of the 2 million plus underlying pixels and the technology that controls them. If ever there was a metaphor for the big picture being based on the details, this is surely it.
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