5 Ways to Develop ‘Big Picture’ Thinking

When hiring programmers and other tech pros, employers look for individuals who can walk a particular mental tightrope. Not only can these desirable candidates think in an extremely detail-oriented way, but they can also take a step back in order to view the “big picture.”

Within tech, more and more roles require this combination of big picture thinking and attention to detail. As a study by the University of Washington notes, employees capable of that sort of ideation consider situations at multiple levels simultaneously, from industry trends and the company’s vision down through technical details and the needs of customers.

There’s no doubt that learning how to toggle between these perspectives can be beneficial. Here are some tips for adopting that mentality:

Declutter Your Mindset

Not all details are created equal. Realizing that is the first step toward creating the mental space to entertain a broader perspective, noted Deb Ingino, CEO of Strength Leader Development.

“You have to be willing to let go of the less important details in order to see the bigger picture,” Ingino said. In other words, you need to make a concerted effort to recognize and eliminate extraneous facts from your daily workflow, lest you end up stuck in data-gathering and analysis mode. If you’re too detail-oriented, you end up repeatedly overlooking larger problems.

Study Resource-Allocation Decisions

Evaluating potential projects through the lens of resource allocation is another exercise that can help you see things from an all-encompassing perspective, explained Rich Horwath, CEO of Strategic Thinking Institute and author of “Elevate: The Three Disciplines of Advanced Strategic Thinking.”

“Understanding which projects your manager choses to do and not do and why can help you learn to think both granularly and strategically,” Horwath noted. “The ability to prioritize projects based on probability of achievement and impact is the dirty little secret of strategic thinking in the technology field because, realistically, you can’t say ‘yes’ to everything.”

Consider Alternate Perspectives

Considering the views, needs and concerns of end users, customers, competitors and shareholders promotes open-mindedness and a trait called intellectual empathy, which is the ability to understand the needs of others (and a foundational skill for critical thinking).

“Moving away from the assembly-line view by understanding why your assignment is important, who else is impacted by your work, and what their perspectives might be is another technique for seeing the big picture,” Ingino said.

Initiate Strategy Conversations

Don’t be content to carry out your daily tasks without understanding a project’s primary objectives. You should also recognize how your deliverables create value across the enterprise.

Having regular strategy conversations with your boss and colleagues can help you connect the dots between your role and responsibilities and the bigger picture. Keep asking yourself and others: “Why am I doing this?” What are you trying to achieve, and how are you going to do it?

Incorporating the business case, project, team and individual goals into a one-page blueprint can prove a valuable tool for visual learners. Over time, you’ll be able to see how big picture and detail-oriented thinking are intertwined.

Play Strategy Games

Playing games such as chess that require both strategy and tactical execution can help you develop a different set of mental muscles and practice switching between “detail” and “big picture” views. There are even some video games that prompt you to make decisions in a simulated-business context. Since games rarely feature a real-world penalty for failure, they are a risk-free way to improve your thinking.

Image Credit: Peshkova/Shutterstock.com

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