Big Picture Thinking
One day a traveler, walking along a lane, came across three stonecutters working in a quarry. Each was busy cutting a block of stone. Interested to find out what they were working on, the traveler asked the first stonecutter what he was doing. “I am cutting a stone!”
Still no wiser the traveler turned to the second stonecutter and asked him what he was doing. “I am cutting this block of stone to make sure that it’s a square, and its dimensions are uniform so that it will fit exactly in its place in a wall.”
A bit closer to finding out what the stonecutters were working on but still unclear, the traveler turned to the third stonecutter. He seemed to be the happiest of the three and when asked what he was doing replied: “I am building a cathedral.”
The teller of the above story (Knutson, 2015) distinguishes between big picture and big picture thinking. It isn’t possible to have the big picture all the time because by definition it’s static and nature of reality is changing environments, circumstances, and interactions. Big picture thinking is a dynamic process, accessible to everyone on the team. That is, if we make it so.
Over the 17 years I’ve worked for MI Evaluation, this is one of the most prominent lessons I’ve learned. When we think strategically, we see the implications of our work and that raises the level of our game. Saying “I’m swamped” should signal me to question: “Swamped doing what?” So here’s what big picture thinking looks like for me—or at least my aspiration.
Get over myself. And become genuinely curious and interested in the work clients are doing and why it matters to them. When producing reports or communication briefs, the thrust of my writing is for my clients’ edification, not my own. Often, what is obvious to me might not be so for them.
Ask provocative questions. Who cares most about this finding? Who else is affected—directly or indirectly? What will be the impact if I conduct this analysis? What happens if I don’t? Am I chasing after this task because it’s low hanging fruit or is it really consequential?
Reduce labor intensity. I don’t have to slog over explaining all data points. They aren’t equally important for my clients. This frees me up to make connections among ideas and people that don’t seem obvious but are relevant in the larger scheme of things.
Make sense of the data. Sift what matters in the haystack and connect it with the major research questions in my study. Have an open mind for unexpected findings.
Think “long game.” Build productive relationships with clients and with internal project teams. Conflict cannot be totally avoided, but it can be mitigated by anticipating problems. Listen more, talk less.
Stay informed about the world around me. Read beyond my expertise. Pay attention to social, economic, demographic, political, and technology trends. The goal is not to become an expert but to broaden my horizons. This makes me valuable to my clients and my project team.
Freely give away knowledge. My big picture thinking should be consistent with the view that empowering as many people as possible with relevant knowledge advances our collective agenda.
Don’t aim for certainty. My study is testing a particular hypothesis, but I cannot be wedded to its confirmation. Rather, I need to take the client where the data lead and explain why. Big picture thinking is intended to reduce distress by opening my mind to a range of possibilities.
When exercised with some regularity, one can develop big-picture muscle. Far-reaching ideas require incubation time, but the tradeoff is that the actual doing isn’t as effortful.
Sara Silver is a Senior Research Associate for the Program Evaluation and School Improvement Services Division at Measurement Incorporated. Please learn more about our program evaluation and professional development services on this website.
Knutson, C. (2015). 5 ways to get big picture thinking. Retrieved June 19, 2018 from