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5 Strategies For Big-Picture Thinking

Need to get a grasp on the big picture? Start small.

5 Strategies For Big-Picture Thinking
[Photo: Flickr user [Duncan]]

I once had a conversation with a product manager who asked me an important question: "How do I make sure I’m thinking about the big picture, when I’m always working on a lot of small things that seem to take up all my time?"

It’s easy to get lost in the weeds at work. While being heads down has its place, it’s equally critical to look up: to reflect on how things are going, to consider alternative strategies, and to ask yourself the hard, high-level questions.

But how can you empower yourself to step back and look at the big picture so you can lead your team more effectively?

Here are five strategies I’ve found helpful:

1. Allocate Time To Thinking

This might sound obvious, but it’s amazing how infrequently we actually do this. If you allow yourself to just do what’s next on your to-do list, you’ll never find the time to think about the big picture—there will always be something that feels more urgent.

Block off time on your calendar based on when you’re most creative (morning, afternoon, evening). My mind feels most clear a couple hours after I wake up, so my big-picture thinking time is always from 10 a.m to 12:30 p.m.

2. Get A Buddy

Once you’ve allocated time to thinking, you’ll likely come upon a stumbling block: it’s hard to sit down and say to yourself, "Okay . . . think!" The best ideas often bubble up through the course of conversation, so it’s valuable to find another person to think with and bounce ideas back and forth.

If you’re in a management position, consider buddying with someone who reports to you: teammates who don’t often get the chance to strategize will be energized by the opportunity to do it with you. Through this exercise, your teammates will get a sense of ownership over the conclusions you come to together, while you’ll gain focus and clarity.

Alternately, you can have a conversation with yourself by buddying up with a text editor or journal: start asking yourself the big questions and write out your answers. I've had long, strategic, and productive dialogues with my computer by simply writing out questions and answering them in free-flow form.

3. Pick Specific Goals

Unpacking your big-picture thinking into a handful of specific goals will make it that much more actionable. If you want to redesign your product, break down this ambition into more specific actions that have a finite timeline: For example, I want to write a draft for the product roadmap over the next two years, broken up into a hierarchy of themes.

Big questions are worth asking but they should be framed in a way that doesn’t feel burdensome or insurmountable. If they do, decompose them into smaller pieces until each one feels doable. Identify a problem and several solutions. For example: How can I help the designers who report to me be as effective as possible? Solutions: Establish a mentorship program or a process for critique.

4. Identify Actionable First Steps

If I have big goal, I will generally procrastinate on tackling it unless I immediately choose the first steps. If I want to create a new product roadmap, my first steps may include finding all the various Google Docs and Asana projects where we’ve done roadmapping in the past. Next, I will read them. Next, I’ll make a list of potential features, then group those features into themes. Then, I’ll ensure there’s a specific deliverable and audience for the proposals. Having a time and a place when you know you’ll need to present your ideas (such as at a big meeting) to an audience is a good way to force you to structure your approach.

5. Generate Ideas

I often start my thinking process by asking, "what is the most ambitious articulation of my goal?" One of the most valuable outcomes of thinking big is being able to step outside your comfort zone, away from the day-to-day routine.

Here are a few starter ideas for thinking big:

Visioning: What will the world look like when your goal has fully manifested? The steps to get there can sometimes become more obvious when you start vividly imagining the desired outcome.

The "dumb answer": Sometimes when I look at a new (great) product, I find myself thinking, "well, of course, that’s so obvious, how else would you do it?" even though other people had been trying to solve the problem for years with much more complex solutions. Think about how someone would naively solve the problem you are trying to tackle; the answer may be more obvious than you originally thought.

Counsel of heroes: Imagine sitting in a room with the people you most admire throughout history. Ask each one: how would you approach the problem?

Removing assumptions: What assumptions are you and your team implicitly making about the problem? For each assumption, ask yourself: what would happen if we removed it? Removing assumptions can free up your mind to see the bigger picture.

Your unique perspective: Every team has some unique perspective that they bring to how they solve problems. How can your team’s lens shape the solution to this problem? For example, when Paul Buccheit set out to build a new email service at Google, he considered: what is Google’s unique perspective? Applying the Google perspective (search) to an old problem (email) created a new solution (Gmail). Ask: what are the relevant ways in which your team thinks differently, is weird or insightful, that bear on this goal?

Once you’ve specified your goals, come up with a plan, identified first steps, and generated your ideas, it’s time to be honest with yourself.

What are the big opportunities you’re actually able to tackle? Thinking big occupies a divergent brainstorming space—an alternate reality where there are no wrong answers. The last and most important part of this exercise is to move from the divergent space to one that is solidly based in reality. Be realistic about what options are actionable, and then take next steps. This is the convergent phase.

When followed up with action, regularly scheduled divergent big-picture thinking can bring new, better ideas to light, and give you confidence that the small tasks you’re doing all day are steps along the right path.

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