Saturday, August 4, 2012

The Big Picture

One of my tasks as an IBM Senior Technical Staff Member (I never get over how silly that long title seems) was maintaining the technical skills of the organization and providing guidance to individuals and executives on employee skill sets. Part of that task meant I read a lot of resumes. Not just people looking to be hired or promoted, but as part of the mentoring process and providing individual guidance and career advice.

At IBM each employee was responsible for their own career and continuing education, and there was a formal, annual process where each person had to document their plans for the next year and further into the future.

This professional development plan included both education and specific job assignments that would help the employee advance both technically and in the job. It was sort of a “what do you want to be when you grow up” statement, and it was essential in guiding an individual’s career.

Many people would state that they were very “detail oriented.” Now that is fine, and a focus on detail is very useful in careers such as programming and, especially, my specialty, software testing and quality. But, personally, I was never very detail oriented, yet I was quite successful in my career.

One thing I was always good at was school. I was often the top student in the class, and my experience as a teacher and instructor was tied to that learning success.

I loved being a student and learning new things, and that was certainly one factor in my success. We tend to do better at things we really enjoy doing. But I also struggled with some classes and subjects, and was not always the top student in the class. Yet most times school was very easy for me, and I started to wonder where that success came from.

As I stated, I don’t think I am very detail oriented … I lack the patience for that. I’ve decided that I am a “Big Picture” thinker. I am always looking at the entire landscape, and, when I learn something new, my first thought is how does that fit in with the "Big Picture" that I already have of this topic. I used to describe to my students a large web of ideas interconnected, and I would talk about fitting a new nugget of knowledge into that web and making the connections by figuratively tying each fact into that web … making the connections and completing the "Big Picture."

As a big picture thinker, it is not that I ignore details, it is just that I’m drawn to the ideas first, I then to synthesize the information into a holistic vision. I consider my view more of a wide-angle vision than a zoomed-in focus on details. I think this is one reason I was chosen to trouble-shoot IBM projects that had gone in the ditch. I had the ability to arrive on the scene, see what was wrong, and suggest changes that were most effective to the project team. I call that strategic thinking, and I’m good at spotting trends and applying patterns.

A current show on the Food Network, called "Restaurant Impossible," is a good example of this trouble shooting mentality. The host of that show goes to failing restaurants and, in two days, he identifies the problems and issues … often of a personal or people nature … and then suggests changes to improve the restaurants business performance. That often means improving the food and the d├ęcor, but I’m impressed how the chef identifies the people problems, and then works to correct those management and employee issues.

That was sort of what my job was like. I would be assigned to a project for just a few weeks with the responsibility to straighten out the project and get it back on track. I didn’t replace the current project manager, I was there to assist him or her and help them see the big picture that was so obvious to me. I wasn’t always successful, but I did think that my input was helpful. At least we pulled the project out of the mud and got it back on the road again … even if it was still behind schedule, it was now making progress.

Big picture thinkers are very special (ouch, just hurt my shoulder patting myself on the back), and are key to many organizations and job positions. Here are some examples of jobs where big picture thinking is essential.

The first place you find big picture thinkers is entrepreneurs. Their big ideas, curiosity, and the ability to connect the dots are all essential traits of a good entrepreneur. Most successful business leaders are not only forward thinking idea people who create new products and innovations, but they also inspire the people around them to reach higher and to invest in their company.

Steve Wozniak was the engineer that invented the original Apple Computer, but Steve Jobs was the entrepreneur that really made Apple the great success it is today … in fact, he did it more than once. Bill Gates is another example.

Close to my area of expertise is the Software Architect. That person has to understand and solve software challenges from a high level. Not only do Software Architects design new software, they are often in charge of the entire project. That means guiding the entire journey from idea to the final finishing touches.

I worked with several successful Software Architects, and they were tireless in the pursuit of the big picture vision. Some of my most enjoyable experiences are when I worked with these successful Software Architects, and I loved watching how they made their dream a reality and being part of that journey. IBM was always most successful when it accepted the leadership of these dream weavers. It was when corporate and the board room mentality took over the projects that the project wavered and success was not achieved.

In this political season, who can forget the Campaign Manager? They are the strategic mind behind the successful campaign. Similar to advertising and marketing, the challenge lies in identifying and tapping into people’s ideas, interests, and emotions to get them to buy what you’re selling. They often remold the candidate into a new product and shape a message that has big picture written all over it. The “Selling of the President” is never more obvious than during a presidential campaign season. The Campaign Manager is constantly attempting to “keep the campaign on message” while they view the big picture of the electorate.

In a similar way a Life Coach will empower people to reach their personal goals, be it writing a book, finding a new job, or creating stronger relationships. A Life Coach helps individuals take a big picture view of their own lives, and helps them to identify patterns and turn their lives in a new direction.

In the same manner, an Organizational Development Consultant will guide organizations through the process of making big scale shifts like restructuring, mergers, or changes in management. The consultant views the system function as a whole, and when problem areas are identified, he or she will make adjustments to help the organization run better, smoother, and more efficiently.

Finally, a term that has a very modern twist: the Futurist. This is the ultimate big picture view … of the entire world … including the future. Futurists spot shifting trends that provide clues to the future. Even though it sounds like fortune telling, it has real importance in our rapidly changing world. A Futurist’s big picture view extends into “what’s next” and can help guide investment, business, and personal decisions. If you think about it, it doesn’t get much more big picture than predicting the future.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Mickey, I am completing a degree in which technical skills and high attention to detail are prized over an ability to see the big picture. It helps to know that there may be a job out there for me where my ability to zoom both in and out will be equally valued.