Few experiences are more breathtaking than taking in the big picture view of a beautiful landscape. Depending on the time of day, patterns and colors vary as the sunlight casts shadows and brings depth to various elevations. When appreciating this sprawling view of the world, the various parts blend together as the colors of a sunset stand out and a bird takes flight from a faraway tree. Sometimes referred to as a 10,000 meter view, this vantage point can build new perspectives and greater understanding of a system. Systems thinkers intentionally seek this big picture orientation and are able to balance that view with timely attention to details when needed.
Have you ever watched a marching band perform during halftime of a sporting event or during the opening ceremony of the Olympics? The goal of the performing group is to play music and create patterns that spell out words and formations that only spectators can appreciate. Each performer plays an important role as the formation moves and changes to create entertaining images.
The spectators in the stands have a big picture view of the performers on the field as their movements create geometric formations and artistic designs. The success of the performance is based on the individual paths of each performer and the interrelationships between the performing members. Are they lined up properly? Is the spacing equally divided? If one person falls out of step or fails to properly line up, the spectators' attention can quickly move to the part of the group that is not aligned.
Spectators with a big picture view easily notice slight irregularities, such as when performers are not quite in line or in step with their group.
Band members on the field have a very different view while performing. While marching, musicians pay attention to surrounding members, the markings on the field, and the conductor. They do not have the advantage of seeing firsthand the big picture they make by working together; this is because they have to pay attention to the details of their surroundings. They have to imagine the formations they create that are best appreciated by a broader perspective.
The same holds true when appreciating an orchestra or choral performance. Audience members listen to the blend of each instrumental section simultaneously playing their parts to produce the musical piece. At times, some instruments or solo voices are featured, but the beauty of the whole provides a synthesis of a musical system working together as one.
Michael, a restaurant owner, read a negative online review of a customer’s dining experience. This disappointing message expressed concern over one of his servers. The message motivated him to seek out more details about the situation. In addition to sharing the complaint with his employee, he considered, “Was this complaint a one-time occurrence or more of a pattern?” If this mishap was one unfortunate incident, then the resulting actions would be quite different than if it had been recurring. After all, this server had worked in the restaurant for over three months, which was certainly long enough to assess competence. Michael felt he needed to seek the bigger picture based on the complaint.
American biologist and President of the Institute for Systems Biology, Leroy Hood, states, “If you just focus on the smallest details, you never get the big picture right.”
Michael could have easily chastised his employee based on one negative review, but in order to “get it right,” he gathered more information beyond this small detail.
Paying attention to the big picture may also involve attention to a collection of details.
“We often put so much energy into the picture, we forget the pixels.”
The Masterful Teacher
Students were overheard talking about their teacher, “She must have eyes in the back of her head!” No matter what they did, even when she appeared to be looking the other way, their teacher always knew what was going on. Ms. Sampson observed everything – she noticed every detail of each and every interaction, no matter the energy level of her students. At the same time, she was able to maintain a clear picture of the entire classroom and the degree to which children were behaving appropriately while engaged in learning. While working individually with Samantha, Ms. Sampson would notice and redirect a group of children who were admiring a new soccer ball that one student brought in for recess. She never missed anything that went on in her classroom. Ms. Sampson was able to maintain the balance between the detail of providing for individual students and the big picture of whole class engagement. This balancing act is a practiced skill that can increase understanding and influence in situations like busy classrooms. Teachers like Ms. Sampson are masterful in seeking to understand the big picture.
Systems thinkers balance the big picture view with attention to detail. Much like the focus on the forest while appreciating each tree, systems thinkers hold both views. They maintain the big picture that includes the 10,000-meter view, while also giving attention to detail. Systems thinkers take time and make efforts to capture a big picture view. It might mean scheduling some time away from the chaos of a busy office or active family to ask oneself reflection questions on attention to both the forest and the trees in one’s life.