Some people think big. Others think small. I don’t know why, but the world seems to divide itself roughly ten to ninety in favour of the small thinker. That either means big thinkers are doomed to eventual extinction and are being made obsolescent by evolution, or else that they represent a brave, new and growing next wave. Who can say which?
You see it all the time, though, don’t you? How many times have you heard of a big company carefully executing upon a stupid strategy, but in exquisite, professional, exacting detail? Don’t all those people understand that their spreadsheets, charts and meetings are pointless? Can’t they see the big picture folly of their chosen course?
If you’ve ever been to an art class, you will perhaps have witnessed people spending hours getting the hands right, but failing to finish the rest of the figure. That or they will mix the colours for the flesh tones carefully, in tiny graduations of tone, oblivious to the fact that the likeness they are painting is grotesquely distorted or their paint mixtures so blatantly not a skin tone, it’s absurd to quibble about tone values at all.
We’ve all heard the corn ball lyric on a meticulously crafted song that was beautifully recorded and produced, yet was ultimately an utter waste of time making (who remembers the Internet sensation “Friday”?)
People who think big marvel that small thinkers cannot see the glaringly obvious “elephant in the room”. They’re seemingly blind to it. Oblivious rather than obvious. Small thinkers, on the other hand, wonder how big thinkers get anything done at all.
This dichotomy appears in many different guises. There are those that rely upon their intuition, versus those that need to be methodical. Some paint with broad brush strokes, whereas others must use a triple zero detail brush for everything on their canvas. There are the bold, visionary way-seers who lead us into the unknown, versus the multitude content to follow orders and obey authority. Some people are in their element with a degree of happy chaos and uncertainty, whereas others must maintain strict orderliness.
There are those that have a mission, versus those with a plan. The mission endures, adapting to change, while the plan must be reformulated and reconstructed regularly, as circumstances change. Some people viscerally and vicariously feel the Gestalt and the Zeitgeist, whereas others are all about minutiae and introspection. Some like to choose between ambiguous options, changing their minds if necessary, whereas others must follow a defined process, from which deviation cannot be tolerated. Some feel comfort with pure possibility and invention, whereas others prefer check lists, familiarity and predictability.
It’s amazing how things can be so far off in the wrong direction entirely, if you look at the big picture, but the detail guys cannot see anything amiss. From their perspective, the next step to be executed looks rational, logical, safe, sound, secure and pretty much like the previous step. No surprises. Small thinkers hate surprises. That’s what big picture thinkers abhor – no surprises.
I’ve seen software teams sweat blood, burn countless man years and chew through millions of dollars creating an application that nobody wants, or one which doesn’t quite do what the users need it to do, but something similar (yet not close enough to be useful). Why? It’s so easy to see how far off the right track we all are, yet so hard to get the drivers to turn the steering wheel toward the correct direction. Why should they believe you? You don’t have proof (yet). You have no track record (so far).
Big thinkers can see value in the intangible, whereas the small thinker can only perform accountancy on physical assets. Big thinkers do mathematics, whereas small thinkers do arithmetical calculations according to a well-formulated algorithm. Small thinkers think that civil disobedience is at the root of society’s ills, whereas big thinkers believe that unquestioning obedience is the real threat.
Big thinkers know when it’s time to replace things, no matter that they’re too big to fail. Small thinkers believe the massive, broken thing can be tweaked back into satisfactory operation. Big thinkers are more like flag-burning revolutionaries, while small thinkers believe in incremental, evolutionary steps, while saluting the flag. Big thinkers can see immediately when something is fundamentally broken, while the small thinkers believe that everything is fundamentally sound, as the maker intended, if a little inconveniently compromised.
Big picture thinkers rely upon the intelligent guess, but small thinkers only place their faith in a sure thing. The former like to try lots of things out, while the latter prefer the step-by-step linear approach. Big thinkers can see how it just might work, while small thinkers can reel off an extensive list of reasons why it cannot possibly work.
Small thinkers assert that big thinkers aren’t paying enough attention. Big thinkers assert that small thinkers aren’t paying enough attention.
Here’s the irony: they’re both right. You need enough of both, but not too much of either.