The need for the Big Picture

On Saturday, my wife Alex and I went out on our own. (We manage to do this every couple of weeks thanks to Alex’s mother, who comes over to watch the kids so we can behave more like adults for a while.) On our little excursion, we spontaneously decided to go up the Calgary Tower, for no other real reason than to take a look.

The sun was getting low in the sky, and the horizon was nearly completely obscured by haze (likely due to the city drying out from a few days of light-to-heavy rain). The shadows cast through the downtown were fantastic, the trees (most of which now have leaves) and the fields of grass were bright green, and light glinted off the glass of a hundred skyscrapers.

And I realised — almost surprisingly — that from way up there, Calgary really does look quite beautiful.

It seems like a weird statement, so let me elaborate. Like with over 95% of Calgary’s population, I’m not usually afforded a high-level view of Calgary — all I ever see is the dirt and chaos present at the ground level, where the work is being done. It’s messy, things don’t always go right, and I sometimes find myself wanting to scream at brick walls (screaming at actual people would have the same overall effect) for things to get better. Progress is hard to see, and my little corner(s) of Calgary seem just as ugly and insignificant as they always do.

From on high (a bit of a joke, admittedly, since there are plenty of buildings much higher than Calgary Tower, now), it’s very different. Calgary looks different. The choking dust of construction is harder to see, the traffic mayhem isn’t as prevalent (it was also 20:45 on Saturday evening), and even the barebones of The Bow building (Encana’s new headquarters, still under construction) have a certain industrial appeal.

Yep, there’s a business angle to this, too. “The Big Picture” is one that is often used, as is “Forest for the Trees”. It’s the same principle — at a low enough point, you can’t see the larger collection. You’re in the proverbial weeds, dealing with the problems that need to be solved. It’s ugly and often frustrating work, and down there it’s almost impossible to see how things will get any better.

I think that’s why it’s necessary for everyone — not just management — to take those necessary steps backwards/upwards to see what they’re doing contributes to the whole. To see what’s going on, how everyone’s tasks feed into a larger entity. Especially in cases where there are dozens or hundreds of people involved, those on the ground need to witness for themselves what else is going on around them.

Why? Two reasons, I think. First: understanding. People get tired, people get complacent, and often people end up getting angry because they can’t see past where they are. Knowing how others are doing, and how their own personal work may affect others can help focus tasks more effectively. Second: job satisfaction. Similar in nature, yes, but a separate effect — it’s almost surprising how much someone can feel that much better knowing how even a seemingly menial task can achieve a milestone.

For me, right now, I can safely say that it’s easy for me to see the big picture at Evans Hunt. My project teams are less than 10 people in total, and often under 5. It’s very easy to take a step back and see what’s going on. Heck, I rarely even need to get out of my seat for that!

In former lives, it was much more difficult, and I remember the struggle to see what was happening around me, let alone across the company. And I know I wasn’t the only one in that situation — the gossip and rumours (however accurate) often spawned around a need to fill in the missing gaps.

So I offer this to you, dear readers: if you feel stuck, struggling to understand, maybe even lost, take time to find the highest possible observation deck in your town or city (most have something). Plan to go there about an hour or so before sunset, and take the time to look around. Look at the buildings you pass every day, look towards your home (even if you can’t see it), find the place you work. Look for the things that you see each and every day and tend not to give them a second (or even first) thought. See how different they look from up above.

Reflect on that perspective — it’s an important one. On the next work day, see if you can find something similar in your daily life. Talk to a manager, to an executive (if you can), other people in other departments. Try to recreate that sense of wholeness that you felt looking down from above. Understand not only how you play your part, but also how everyone else factors in as well.

Maybe then, things won’t seem so haphazard and chaotic.