Seeing the Big Picture

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My first large fiber art wall hanging—four feet square—has been lying on the floor of my studio (aka guest bedroom) for two weeks now. Normally I lay out my pieces as I work on them to allow them to soak in. I walk away then come back to them again and again with fresh eyes and new ideas. Sometimes I take photos along the way so I can glance at them in odd moments for the same purpose. It allows the piece to tell me how it wants to develop.

I also use the off-times to think about the engineering. How am I going to make the piece look the way I want? What additional materials do I need, and how will they go together?

With this get-flash-ebooklarge hanging, the process is not working for me the way it usually does. I finally figured out why.

I am too close. Ultimately, the hanging will go into a very big room, and it’s sized just right for that. But I’m creating it in my small studio. The piece is so big, I don’t have room to stand back. I have to get up on a chair to take a photo of it, and it still fills the whole frame. I just don’t have a way to get perspective.

Many of us experience the same problem when we need to develop bold strategies for our businesses. We can work on the pieces, but we can’t stand far enough back to see the whole picture. As a result, we spend our time optimizing the bits that don’t matter very much in the end, and we miss the big opportunities by a mile.

A few examples would be helpful.  A little checking on Google took me to the following 2014 blog post by Mark Perry[1]. This is a real aside, but I can’t help myself.

Steven Denning pointed out a few years ago in Forbes[2] that fifty years ago, the life expectancy of a firm in the Fortune 500 was around 75 years. Today, it’s less than 15 years and declining all the time.

The hyperlink to Denning’s 2011 blog shows a chart based not on the Fortune 500, but the S&P 500. And the footnote for the chart shows it was published by Richard Foster in 2001, so it must have been based on data before that date. In other words, every data point after, say, 2000 is a projection. It would be great to track down the raw data, but lacking that we are left with the chart.  If you look hard at the chart, you see that the life expectancy of an S&P 500 firm in 1965 was about 25 years, projected to fall to about 20 years in 2015. That’s not nearly so exciting to report. What is really interesting about the chart is the regular 20-year cycles with peaks of longevity and valleys of quick death. I don’t quite get the math. How could average S&P 500 company lifespan increase from 30 years to 60 years in the span of 10 years? Does that mean a whole bunch of older companies have grown like mad to replace upstarts on the list? Now that would be interesting!

Enough GoogLOLing and back to the point… For examples of strategic myopia we have Kodak and Polaroid, IBM’s sluggishness to recognize the importance of the personal computer, Zynga’s reliance solely on Facebook to reach customers, and a seemingly endless list of foolhardy acquisitions. Some cases are deadly, some not, but they are everywhere.

The big question is, how do we stand back far enough, smart enough, and consistently enough to have perspective? To see the whole, evolving strategic picture? Outsiders and consultants have the advantage of distance, but not an intimate understanding of the organization’s art of the practical—what’s doable in the actual time available. And a one-and-done transformational experience is the last thing healthy organizations need.

Here’s what I think thriving organizations do need… Five types of people sprinkled liberally throughout who know how to talk to each other:

  1. Skeptics and gadflies. These folks question everything and would rather poke you in the eye than pat you on the back. No matter what you have accomplished in the past little while, they’re not satisfied, and they say so. Yes, they take the sunshine out of the room, but they provide the essential antidote to complacency.
  2. Nerds. Nerds find the truth and build things that work. Whether they are researching fraud data, designing vaccines, or coding software, they don’t take any shortcuts. They don’t stop until they are personally satisfied they got to the right answer.
  3. Listeners. Listeners protect organizations from their own tendencies to be insular and narrow-minded. They bring the outside in, loud and clear. They give voice to new ideas and contrary opinions from the inside as well.
  4. Dot connectors. These folks use small bits to paint big pictures. They have the visioning skills to take the fragmented information and ideas splattered across the organization and lay it all out on one page in Technicolor.
  5. Outlaws. Outlaws build new businesses. They don’t care about pleasing the suits in upper management; they just want to have enough leeway to create something valuable.

I think I know now what to do to finish my fiber-art wall hanging. I will get my head into each of these roles at the right time, with the right intensity to create the piece as it wants to be. Miss one, and I’ll be sorry.

I believe the same is true for our organizations. If we can embrace people in these five roles and respect and love what they bring to our strategic art, we will find our perspective.

[1] https://www.aei.org/publication/fortune-500-firms-in-1955-vs-2014-89-are-gone-and-were-all-better-off-because-of-that-dynamic-creative-destruction/

[2] http://www.forbes.com/sites/stevedenning/2011/11/19/peggy-noonan-on-steve-jobs-and-why-big-companies-die/#131494ba3e57

Jane Linder

Written by Jane Linder

Dr. Jane Linder is the Managing Director of NWN Corporation and leads the company’s marketing team. She has 30 years of experience in IT, operations, and strategy. Prior to working with NWN she spent eight years with Accenture as a senior executive, primarily focused on the public sector and outsourcing. She has been named one of the top women in the IT channel consistently since 2008. Her most recent book, Spiral Up, focuses on wildly successful initiatives.

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