Big-Picture Thinking (Part 1)


This is the August edition of Client Loyalty. I thought it pointless to send it out at the end of August, when many people are on vacation, but perhaps there was a subconscious reason as well: An inability, on my part, to let go of the summer! Moving from summer to fall is, for many professionals, a big shifting of gears. Fall is an extraordinarily busy period, and it’s a long haul from Labor Day to Thanksgiving. I won’t say more, because the American poet Robert Frost expresses it perfectly in a beautiful poem called “Reluctance.” Part of the brilliance of Frost’s poetry is that most of it is highly accessible to casual readers, yet it is still complex and profound, and operates on many different levels. Let me start off this newsletter by offering you the last two stanzas of this gem:


And the dead leaves lie huddled and still,

No longer blown hither and thither;

The last lone aster is gone;

The flowers of the witch hazel wither;

The heart is still aching to seek,

But the feet question “Whither?”

Ah, when to the heart of man

Was it ever less than a treason

To go with the drift of things,

To yield with a grace to reason,

And bow and accept the end

Of a love or a season?

WORTH ITS WEIGHT IN GOLD: Big-Picture Thinking

I know a management consultant who spent several years helping a company reengineer the production process in one of its factories. Shortly after finishing the work, the client decided to close the factory completely. It turns out that this client’s industry had suffered for years from dramatic overcapacity, and it was only a matter of time before it had to shutter some of its own production facilities. My friend did his job diligently, but never looked at the broader context his client was operating within. As it happened, it was yet another consultant who analyzed which plants should be closed!

Does this story, perhaps in a different version, sound familiar? Listen to what clients say about the most trusted and valued professionals they work with. These comments are taken from interviews I have conducted with a variety of corporate and individual clients:

• “He gives me a global view.”“She provides additional perspective and helps me to conceptualize the real problem.”

• “He brings big picture thinking to the discussion.”

• “They help me consistently focus on the important, strategic issues . . . the level of the conversation is elevated.”

• “He handles the details, the tactics, but is also able to see the overall strategy.”

What they’re talking about is one of the most important qualities of client advisors: the ability to synthesize, to see the big picture. Clients want it from the professionals they hire. Bosses want it from their subordinates. CEOs absolutely must have it. But what really is “big picture thinking”?

“Synthesis” comes from a Greek word meaning to put together into a whole. The essence of synthesis is being able to identify overarching patterns and themes, to see, in essence, the big picture. Good synthesis identifies patterns, simplifies and frames the most critical issues, and develops new conclusions from old data. Sometimes it entails building up an idea, concept, or framework out of the details, often in an illogical, nonstandard, or roundabout way. The ability to synthesize—which is really at the root of strategic thinking—is one of the reasons an advisor is more valuable than an expert.

Analysis is concerned with breaking things down into elements and examining each piece according to a set of prescribed, logical steps. All too often, analysis slavishly employs the same old frameworks; when this happens, it becomes a commodity, which clients buy by the pound. How many financial advisors, for example, can create pie chart showing how your assets should be allocated? Every one I’ve ever met, certainly. How many can, through careful questioning, get you to think hard about the balance between your savings and lifestyle, and perhaps get you to consider changes in the way you live? Not many.

So how do you improve your big picture thinking, your powers of synthesis? You need to bring three ingredients together:

• Foundations

• Tools and techniques

• Habits of mind


The first stone in the foundation of a good synthesis has to be a sense of purpose. Just as Machiavelli had in mind an overarching goal in writing The Prince—a stable, unified Italy—so should modern professionals as they set out to formulate conclusions and recommendations to their clients. What are your client’s overarching goals? What does he or she really want to accomplish? Why have you been asked to help?

The second stone is an understanding of the whole picture. Have you been hired to implement cultural change in a company that is losing money hand-over-fist? I recently met someone who was doing exactly this, and he was not even aware of the company’s financial condition. Naturally, his program met some stiff resistance. You need to understand the entire ecosystem, as it were, around the problem you’ve been asked to address.

Finally, your foundation has to include a clear sense of the critical issues. The inability to identify critical issues is a principal reason for failure and dismissal in management jobs. If cost-cutting is the most pressing short-term issue and an executive focuses on marketing, her tenure will be short-lived. The pages of the Wall Street Journal and Fortune are routinely filled with tales of otherwise highly talented CEOs who put their energies into misplaced and ill-timed priorities, and consequently are ousted by impatient and unhappy boards.

How do you sort out these critical issues? First, by constantly screening them against the ultimate purpose at hand. You have to ask, “Which issues will really affect the outcome I seek? Which ones will influence my client’s overarching purpose?” Second, you need to distinguish between symptoms and causes. A CEO might bring in a psychologist to counsel senior executives who are in conflict, for example, but the root cause might be a compensation system that is driving them apart rather than personality differences.

Before you can engage in synthesis, you need to be clear about these three things: Your client’s purpose; the whole picture; and the critical issues. Without an understanding of these, you’ll risk doing great analysis that leads nowhere.



Being “needed” by clients can almost become a drug. I have seen many professionals exhibit these and other symptoms of excessive neediness:

  • You check voice mail and e-mail far more frequently than is necessary. I have one friend who probably checks for e-mail messages 20 times a day, and he’s not that unusual.
  • You begin thinking excessively about other services you can sell your client, quite independently of an examination of what he really needs and wants.
  • You feel insecure when a couple of days go by and you get few or no calls from clients. Never mind that you’re busy and your clients are happy with your work—you still feel badly.
  • You leave a message for a client and you don’t hear from him for a few days or a week—and become absolutely convinced you have fallen out of favor.
  • A client begins to make, on her own, decisions that she used to get your counsel on. It makes you feel like you’re no longer part of her inner circle and that she doesn’t really need you anymore.
  • You believe, deep down, that at any time your leadstream could completely dry up, leaving you and/or your firm with no clients and no business

The current economy makes these tendencies worse. Many service industries, from banking to consulting to public relations, have been experiencing difficult times for the last year and a half. You’re not alone in this regard.

The antidote? First, remember that there may be an asymmetry to your relationship—your client’s business may represent 20% of your daily life in the office, whereas for your client the equivalent figure might be 3% (he’s got 10 other projects going on besides the one you’re focused on). Get a life and realize that you exist as a separate entity from your clients. I sincerely doubt if any business professional, on his or her deathbed, has murmured these dying words: “My clients needed me so much, I should have spent more time with them.” If you’re aware of such a story, I’d like to hear about it.

Next month we’ll look at the tools, techniques, and habits of mind that will help you become a better, more creative, big-picture thinker with your clients.

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