Big Picture Thinking (How to avoid becoming a “failed strategy” statistic)

By: JJ

You and your team have just finished a significant amount of work crafting a clear and purpose driven vision statement. You’ve carefully laid out your long-term goals, developed the strategy necessary to achieve those goals, and are motivated to get after it. Now fast-forward six months. You’re inundated with tasks, a calendar full of meetings, and the deadlines for you and your team are piling up. Everything feels urgent, and when you have a moment to step back and take it all in, it feels like you and your team are running on the proverbial hamster wheel. You, your team, and the resources you have are being overwhelmed by the urgent, at the expense of the important. What happened to that vision, strategy, and the motivation to achieve them? You’ve lost sight of the big picture.

Creating a vision, generating goals, and crafting a well-planned and detailed strategy are important endeavors for organizations. So why is it that researchers estimate that somewhere between 60% and 90% of well-planned strategies fail to fully launch? What causes the breakdown between crafting and executing strategy? While there are several factors that contribute to the disconnect between formulation and execution, many of which are well-researched and discussed across management literature, I’d offer that a common thread amongst all of them is the failure of a leader(s) to maintain Big Picture Thinking.

What is Big Picture Thinking? I define Big Picture Thinking as the ability to maintain a strategic level perspective that connects tasks, projects, efforts and people to an overarching endeavor, and the ability to effectively create and communicate that context to your team in a way that generates buy-in. When a leader fails to maintain Big Picture Thinking, they are prone to make rash decisions, misalign limited resources, succumb to short-termism, and ultimately deflate the team’s motivation and sense of efficacy or viability. Beyond just poor results in earnings reports or performance reviews, the failure to maintain Big Picture Thinking directly impacts our people, draining their motivation and diminishing their sense of purpose.

Why is it important for leaders to own the responsibility for Big Picture Thinking? Because Big Picture Thinking enables you and your team to envision the future while you execute in the present. Big Picture Thinking provides the clarity that is necessary in the confusion of the everyday, serves as the North Star when it feels like your organization may be adrift, and perhaps most importantly, serves to help you ensure your organizational activities align with your organizational values. To maintain Big Picture Thinking and effectively lead our organizations through successful strategy implementation, there are some key leader actions that we must facilitate, both individually and collectively.

First and foremost, our actions as leaders must be authentic – authentic to ourselves, and authentic to our organization. If we seek to “fake it ‘til we make it” in maintaining and providing Big Picture Thinking, it will show quickly and erode trust in our ability to effectively lead strategically. With that understanding, what are some of the actions that we can take as leaders to ensure we are applying a strategic lens to our everyday organizational activities? I think that the following actions, divided into the two broad categories of individual and team actions, can help us maintain Big Picture Thinking for our teams:

Individual Actions

These are the actions that you can take as an individual leader, in and of yourself, to help you more effectively be a Big Picture Thinker.

  • Reflection: We’ve often spoken of the importance of reflection for leader development and growth. In the context of being a Big Picture Thinker, reflection is critical to enabling us to step back from the noise and busy pace of the everyday in our organization and gain perspective. It is through reflection that we can delineate between what tasks are urgent, and what tasks are important. Additionally, reflection allows us to formulate meaningful questions to gain a better understanding of the problems we are trying to solve.
  • Humble Curiosity: If reflection allows us the deliberate time and space to step back and gain perspective, the logical next step is to formulate and ask questions. This leader attribute of humble curiosity helps us to ask those questions without pretense or pride standing in the way. Humble curiosity enables us to learn from setbacks, to revisit our goals to ensure they are still valid for the team, and to seize strategic opportunities when they arise. If we fail to maintain a humble curiosity, we limit our field of vision and easily find ourselves being the strongest “carriage horse” on the team, plodding along with the blinders on and only focused on going where led, rather than being the driver who looks around and leads.
  • Persistent Messaging: Effective communication is an essential action for a leader to embrace. When it comes to maintaining Big Picture Thinking, a leader is responsible to own the “why,” communicate the “what,” and empower their team to determine and execute the “how.” To thoroughly own the “why” and communicate the “what”, a leader must persistently message those things. Whether it’s in the morning stand-up meeting, one-on-one performance reviews, customer engagements, or an all-hands session, you must create and seize opportunities to persistently message how things fit together in the bigger picture.
  • Celebrate the incremental wins: As easy as it is to get caught up in the day-to-day minutiae, we can also get so caught up in achieving the overarching goal that we fail to recognize the incremental wins our team accomplishes along the way. I personally struggle with this; a few years ago, I was leading an organization that undertook significant organizational transformation goals. About 9 months into the process, there was an undercurrent of frustration and some vocal feelings that efforts taken in the organization weren’t recognized and were “never going to be good enough.” It took honest and courageous feedback from a subordinate leader pointing out to me that in my drive to achieve our transformation goals, I had failed to recognize and praise the incremental progress we had made. He pointed out that this was a blind spot in my leadership, and that if I didn’t address it, I risked losing some committed teammates to burn-out, dissatisfaction, or frustration. I am so grateful for that feedback! It highlighted to me the importance of celebrating the journey just as much as we celebrate the destination. A Big Picture Thinker must remember to recognize and celebrate incremental wins!

Team Actions

In addition to your individual actions, a Big Picture Thinker must also lead their team through some collective actions to be more effective.

  • Connecting the pieces: Although it should go without saying, you as the leader need to say it – each of the tasks, projects, and activities that your team takes on need to map to the overarching strategy! While you own this message (remember the persistent messaging action?), you need to work with your team to ensure this principle follows through. Invite the team to identify how a specific task maps within the overarching project, and how that project maps to achieving the strategic goals you all have established. Not only does this help ensure you are wisely applying and using limited resources, but it also serves to increase the motivation of your teammates.
  • Honest Communication: In his book Good Strategy, Bad Strategy, Richard Rumelt states “Good strategy requires leaders who are willing and able to say no to a wide variety of actions and interests. Strategy is at least as much about what an organization does not do as it is about what it does.” No matter how hard we try, we can’t do it “all.” Often, it is the “doers” in the organization, the members of the team that are at the tactical level of executing tasks, that have a true sense of what the organizational capacity is. Invite them to engage in honest communication with you! We create and perpetuate a climate of trust when we establish a culture of feedback. Working with your team, identify and be exceptionally clear on what the team CAN do, what it CAN’T do, what it SHOULD do, and what is MUST do. These distinctions are vital to your team’s ability to execute strategy effectively.
  • Make the purpose of each task/project tangible: Building on the basis of honest communication, a key activity for the team to maintain a Big Picture Perspective is to make the purpose of each task and project tangible. As a team, ask (and then answer) the question – if the product we are working on disappeared, how would the world be worse off? If the company ceased to exist, what would the impact be? By connecting the actions and efforts of the team to something tangible, we align the seemingly mundane to the magnificent and assist the entire team in maintaining a Big Picture perspective.
  • Values alignment: Just as it is important for our individual leader actions to be authentic, it is also necessary for our collective actions to align with our values. Beyond asking your team to map tasks and projects to the overall strategy (like we did in the first team action), ask them to map these to your organizational values. If there is misalignment, dig in and address it! You, and your team, will be that much better if you practice what you preach, and preach what you practice.

Putting into Practice

To effectively employ these individual and team actions, here are 7 practical examples of how you can implement these into your leader practice:

  1.  Block time for reflection. We make time for what is truly important to us; put the time on your calendar to reflect and protect that time! Simply start with a short 15-minute window.
  2.  Make use of the “pre-mortem”, not just the “post-mortem”. Good organizations conduct a post-mortem or After-Action Review to determine lessons learned from their past experiences. But great organizations look to the future through pre-mortems to identify potential pitfalls, risks, distractions, and ways that events might play out to more effectively chart the path towards achieving their strategic goals.
  3.  Carry a 3x5 card. At the beginning of each week, write your strategic vision on the card and then map your activities for that week to the vision.
  4.  Express gratitude. I firmly believe that gratitude can be a force multiplier. Whether it’s a handwritten note, public kudos, and specific callouts of actions, behaviors or accomplishments that contributed towards achieving a strategic goal, find ways to express gratitude to your team!
  5.  Ensure project kick-offs and in-progress reviews (IPRs) map to a specific line of effort. As you kick off a project, hold an in-progress review, or conduct a client engagement, make the first slide (even before the agenda slide) the strategic vision or goal and connect that effort to the vision or goal.
  6.  Solicit feedback. This starts with you; invite feedback, be receptive to it, and then implement it! This can be done at the beginning and end of meetings, in leader check-ins, or through a variety of other formats.
  7.  Value check. Much like mapping to a specific line of effort, you can put the organizational value that directly relates to the task or project front and center of any forum where you are reviewing that task or project. Deliberately, repeatedly, and dogmatically ensure the strategy and the actions to implement that strategy authentically align with your organizational culture and values. It’s not just important, it’s imperative.

In the book Executing your Strategy: How to Break It Down & Get It Done, the authors emphasize that “Purpose trumps Circumstance”. Regardless of our circumstances, a clear-eyed purpose serves to focus, clarify, and motivate us to stay the course. This is at the core of a Big Picture Thinker – the ability to envision the future while you execute in the present, providing the context necessary for your team to fully engage and buy-in. How can you step forward today as a Big Picture Thinker and unlock the potential of your team to accomplish your strategic goals and achieve your vision?

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