In June 2019, Greta Thunberg gave a speech at the Brilliant Minds conference in Stockholm.

“Here is some big-picture thinking for you: If you … are living a high-carbon lifestyle, that means you have used up countless people’s remaining carbon budgets … that they will need in their everyday life for generations to come,” she said. “Everyone and everything needs to change.”

Thunberg’s speech exemplifies her big-picture thinking skills – she looks beyond everyday energy use to see the long-term impact that it will have on our planet and future generations. 

Research shows that successful entrepreneurs often show an aptitude for big-picture thinking, but the skill can benefit everyone, and can be improved upon with practice and the right mindset. 

So what is big-picture thinking exactly, and how can we get better at it?

What is big-picture thinking?

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Big-picture thinking is a strategic concept that helps people visualize an entire idea, rather than concentrating on just the small details. It involves envisioning the long-term possibilities of a course of action or an idea. Gorick Ng – a Harvard University career advisor and Wall Street Journal best-selling author of The Unspoken Rules: Secrets to Starting Your Career Off Right, which discusses this concept – explains that big-picture thinking involves being goal-oriented, rather than task-oriented. 

One critical component of big-picture thinking is systems thinking, which involves looking at connected wholes rather than separate, individual parts. In other words, people who use systems thinking are able to see how processes and tasks are connected to each other to compose a bigger whole. And, because engaging in big-picture thinking will typically involve working across multiple teams with many people, cross-functional collaboration is another key element in putting this strategic concept into practice.

Big-picture thinking is often contrasted with detail-oriented thinking, which prioritizes narrowing in on specific aspects of a project rather than examining the project as a whole. Although many people view big-picture thinking and detail-oriented thinking as opposites, teams need both, working in tandem, in order to successfully achieve their goals.

Finally, while often lumped together, long-term goal-setting and big-picture thinking are different. Setting long-term goals is a critical part of big-picture thinking because it can help people plan out their big idea; these goals can serve as milestones to help people assess their progress and stay focused.

What are the benefits of big-picture thinking?

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Developing big-picture thinking can not only help you – it can also benefit the people around you and your organization.

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As part of his research, Ng spoke to hundreds of professionals across many industries. One was a retail cashier who noticed that the business became chaotic around lunchtime. They realized that competing businesses that had clear markers for where customers could stand were more efficient, so they suggested implementing a similar system. Because of their big-picture thinking skills, the cashier not only found a way to improve their workplace, but also got promoted, Ng said.

“It’s kind of like we’re all walking down an art gallery. … And we’re all looking at a painting, and different people are seeing different details in this painting,” Ng said. Some people, Ng said, might see obstacles in this “painting” and be frustrated by them. But others might see these obstacles as opportunities to think of innovative solutions; it’s those people who use big-picture thinking skills.

Adaptability makes way for resilience

Jason Schwertfager, COO and Co-Founder of the executive search firm Artemis Consultants, added that using big-picture thinking can make professionals more nimble and adaptable amid challenges. People who use big-picture thinking are always looking for ways to improve a situation – just like our cashier who improved their store’s efficiency. Meanwhile, people who are hyper-focused on smaller, everyday tasks may tend to concentrate on completing those tasks rather than looking ahead and brainstorming ways to improve the status quo.

Having a vision for the future is motivating

At its best, effective big-picture thinking can be inspiring to both yourself and others. If you have a vision for the future, it can keep you focused on your long-term goal even in the face of challenges. Think of Thunberg – she’s motivated to continue fighting against climate change because she wants to save the planet (the biggest picture kind of thinking!), even as she faces obstacles like politicians unwilling to change policies and widespread apathy to the perils of climate change.

You, too, can use big-picture thinking to inspire others around you with your long-term goals, even if your OKRs are more modest than Thunberg’s. 

Forward-focused thinking leads to innovation

Big-picture thinking also fosters creativity. A well-known example of someone whose big-picture thinking skills led to innovation is Steve Jobs. Jobs wasn’t satisfied with creating phones that maintained the status quo – he looked ahead to imagine what phones could do in the future. His forward-thinking led to him inventing the ground-breaking iPhone.

How to grow your big-picture thinking skills

While people may have a tendency to naturally think in one way or the other, it’s possible to strengthen your big-picture thinking skills. Here are some techniques you can practice to develop these skills.

Embrace a growth mindset 

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People with growth mindsets believe that success is determined by effort, whereas people with fixed mindsets think traits are innate. If you’re focused on acquiring knowledge and expanding skill sets, that will help you foster a growth mindset. And practicing this skill will help you develop big-picture thinking skills as well – if you believe in growing and practicing new skills, you’re opening your mind to developing big-picture thinking. 

For example, in his research for his book, Ng came across someone who worked a sales job. Some people, Ng said, might do the bare minimum for this job and just cold call clients. But this individual kept a record of the times they were rejected on a sales call. Eventually, they brought their notes to the rest of the team to discuss what wasn’t working in the company’s approach and how to improve its strategy. Rather than being satisfied with performing the same tasks every day, this individual wanted to acquire new knowledge and expand their skill set by brainstorming ways to improve the company’s status quo operations – that’s big-picture thinking in action.

Use disruptive thinking

Disruptive thinking can also help foster big-picture thinking. Similar to brainstorming and mind mapping, disruptive thinking is a creative process that generates ideas through free-flowing, unstructured brainstorming. Practicing this skill engages that thinking-outside-the-box muscle – rather than encouraging people to take the most obvious or straightforward path, disruptive thinking encourages people to pursue all options. Using disruptive thinking allows you to view a situation from a variety of perspectives and foster an open-minded approach to your work, which are both qualities that can lead to big-picture thinking.

Play strategy games

Strategy games – think chess and checkers – are good tools to develop big-picture thinking skills. These games often involve planning ahead, picturing several rounds of future moves, so playing them regularly will help you practice big-picture thinking.

Make lists

And finally, back to basics. Set goals and make to-do lists – because, while it’s important not to get too bogged down by small details, setting long-term goals for yourself keeps you on track and focused on accomplishing your long-term objectives.

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