Big-Picture Thinking (Part 3)

“We think too small,” said the Chinese leader Mao Tse-Tung. “Like the frog at the bottom of the well. He thinks the sky is only as big as the top of the well. If he surfaced, he would have an entirely different view.” Professionals who act like the frog at the bottom of well often end up becoming commodities in the client marketplace. You simply have to add breadth to your depth if you want to been seen as a strategic thinker who offers valuable, specialist knowledge combined with a broad view of client problems. In the last couple of issues of Client Loyalty, we looked at the first two building blocks of good synthesis, Foundations and then Tools and Techniques. This month, let’s examine some of the Habits of Mind that will help to unleash your big picture thinking ability.


Suspension of Initial Judgment

Analytical thinking is based on making careful judgments at each stage of the thought process and then validating every step or conclusion. Synthesis requires a suspension of judgment in order to allow “unrealistic” or “mistaken” alternatives or ideas to be allowed into the discussion. Remember that many great discoveries were either accidental or the result of mistakes. Marconi pursued his (ultimately) successful experiments in the belief that radio waves followed the curvature of the earth (they don’t). Penicillin and x-rays were also “mistakes,” which developed into life-saving medical breakthroughs.


Humor shares several characteristics with creative, synthetic thinking. Clever jokes and stories often present unexpected solutions and juxtapose ideas or concepts that normally would not go together. The best jokes—like good thinking—often end with an unexpected punchline. For example:

During the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia, a rainbow appears over Prague, ending in the middle of St. Wenceslaus Square. A Czech soldier and a Russian soldier rush to the square to find the treasure, which sits squarely under the end of the rainbow. Arriving at the same time, they vie for the gold.

“O.K.,” says the Czech, “let’s share it like brothers.”

“No way,” responds the Russian, shaking his head. “Let’s share it fifty-fifty.”

Time for Reflection

“I lived in solitude in the country,” said Albert Einstein, talking about the sources of his great ideas, “and noticed how the monotony of quiet life stimulates the creative mind.” Some researchers in the field of creativity, in fact, believe that insight occurs during the reflection and relaxation that follows a period of intense activity and work.

Observation and concentration

Learning to concentrate is a key to synthesis. In attempting to explain Newton’s intellectual breakthroughs, the economist John Maynard Keynes wrote: “I believe that the clue to his mind is to be found in his unusual powers of continuous concentrated introspection . . . .His peculiar gift was the power of holding in his mind a purely mental problem until he had seen straight through it.” The same was said about the famous banker John Pierpont Morgan: One contemporary observer commented, “Morgan has one chief mental asset—a tremendous five minutes’ concentration of mental thought.” How do you develop this kind of concentration? A lot of it has to do with clearing your mind of other distractions—recall the image of Isaac Newton sitting for hours in his bathtub until the water was cold, pondering how the light was diffracted through his soap bubbles.

Dirty Hands

A nineteenth-century French diplomat, showing disdain for Anglo-Saxon pragmatism, is said to have remarked, “It will work in practice, yes. But will it work in theory?” Intense concentration of thought and the development of theoretical frameworks are key ingredients in effective big picture thinking, but it is also true that doing is just as important. This is a dilemma for professionals who work in large companies: as you become more senior in an organization, you are exposed to more and more projects and client situations at a very top level; yet at the same time you may actually do less and less hands-on work with specific client issues and problems. Ideas and innovations often flow from the actual doing, however.


Managing relationships with IT and other technical professionals: Excerpts from “Leading Geeks” by Paul Glen.

A friend of mine, Paul Glen, has written a new book called “Leading Geeks,” (Jossey-Bass, 2002) which is about leading and managing technical professionals. It’s a fascinating, insightful view into a world I cannot even begin to comprehend. I’m going to share with you some snippets from Paul’s book, as I think his insights into “geek” psychology will help you better understand the dynamics involved in building relationships with IT and other technical professionals. Here goes:

On Geek Stereotypes

“Geeks are different from other people. If this comes as a shocking statement to you, you’re either oblivious or unusually charitable with your opinions about others. But let’s face it. Stereotypes exist for a reason, and although they can be cruel and insensitive, they often contain a kernel of truth.”

On Rationality

“Geeks revere the rational. The irony is that their boundless faith in reason is fired by passion, a conviction so strong that it can only be based in emotion…the inherently irrational.”

On the Geek View of the World

“For geeks, the mental tool that organizes almost every situation is the ‘problem-solution’

model. When confronted with almost any situation, the initial response is to seek out the problem and then find the solution. That’s why geeks almost universally despise status meetings. These meetings don’t conform to the ‘problem-solution’ model of work. They can’t be clearly identified as solving a particular problem, so they must be a waste.”

On Judging Others

“Geeks generally don’t suffer fools gladly. First impressions count—a lot. Once a geek has decided that someone is a bozo, they tend to build barriers to communication, collaboration, and even to code. They will protect themselves and their work from the influence of the bozo.”

On Resistance to Authority

“Geeks are notoriously resistant to authority bestowed from outside and generally reject official hierarchies. They tend to build their own based on those values that they hold dear: knowledge and meritocracy.”

On Money and Fairness

“Geeks are generally not captivated by money. Their attitudes toward money are much more tied up in their strong sense of fairness and justice. Everyone wants to feel fairly compensated for their value. The passion for reason combines with a strong belief in meritocracy to create an atmosphere where money is a primary measure of the value that one delivers to the organization.”

On Rebelliousness

“Although most geeks are relatively timid and quiet people, scratch the surface and you will find a strong rebellious streak. This rebel image touches on many concepts that geeks hold dear, including freedom, independence, self-determination, integrity, and creativity. What may seem like an insignificant request for conformity, such as a request that a geek wear a coat and tie to a client meeting, can be met with what seems disproportionate and impassioned response. Repeated disregard of this sensibility can easily result in a mutiny.”

On Measuring Merit

“Because they tend to see the world through technology-colored glasses, geeks often believe that the only valid criteria on which merit should be measured is technical knowledge. Not productivity. Not managerial skills. Not communication skills. When promotions, bonuses, or awards are bestowed on those who excel at things geeks devalue, they feel the organization has violated its commitment to meritocracy, and are outraged.”

On Organizing Technical Work into Projects

“What is it that makes projects such a productive approach to geek work? There is a special interaction that takes place, a synergy between geek personalities, the character of geek work, and the nature of projects that makes them ideally suited to one another. All my travels have convinced me that projects are the optimal format for geekwork.”

On Motivating Groups of Geeks

“It may seem obvious, but the most important way to help a team build intrinsic motivation is to pick people who want to be on the team in the first place. Since you can’t imbue geeks with internally-generated enthusiasm, select for it. There are many other factors that must be considered, but initial interest in the technology, the business, or a role on a project should be one of the primary considerations when making assignments.”

On the Geek Leader’s Role

“To a geek, the word ‘control’ conjures images of a remote control for a television or stereo. Being controlled is not something that geeks typically aspire to. On the other hand, ‘coordination’ is quite different. A leader who focuses on coordinating activities is more concerned with ensuring smooth information flow, recognizing and satisfying interdependencies, overcoming obstacles, and assisting each person to fulfill individual goals. Geeks welcome coordination while they resist control.”

On Ambiguity

“The problem-solution thinking pattern so common among geeks reminds us that geek work is all about ambiguity. Problems are mysteries that we do not yet know a solution to. Even discovering the right problems to address is a mystery. When a project starts, the team members don’t really know what they are going to do, what questions they are going to be expected to answer, what experiments they are going to have to do. If you fail to understand the fundamental ambiguity of geekwork, you will have a very hard time organizing work productively.”

On Project Teams

“Project teams are much less tolerant of non-contributing members than are people

engaged in other forms of work organization. When a team believes in its goals, is truly focused on completion, and believes that deadlines are real, participants have few excuses for allowing limited project resources to be squandered on poor performers. The foxhole-type loyalty that team members develop for each other prevents them from allowing their comrades to become victims of incompetent or incapable co-workers.”

[Paul can be reached at]

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