Big Picture Thinking

Big Picture Thinking

Big Picture Thinking Jonathan Poland

“The big picture” refers to the broadest possible perspective that can be taken in a thought process. Big picture thinking is the ability to consider the broader context or implications of a situation, rather than focusing solely on the details or immediate concerns. It involves looking beyond the surface level of a problem or issue and considering the long-term effects or consequences.

Big picture thinking can be beneficial in a variety of settings, including business, decision-making, and problem-solving. It allows individuals to see the bigger picture and understand how their actions or decisions fit into the larger scheme of things. By considering the bigger picture, individuals can identify patterns, trends, and underlying causes that may not be immediately apparent.

There are several ways to cultivate big picture thinking, including:

  1. Reflecting on past experiences: Examining past experiences can help individuals identify patterns and trends that may not be immediately obvious.
  2. Seeking diverse perspectives: Consulting with others who have different backgrounds, experiences, or viewpoints can help broaden one’s perspective and consider a wider range of possibilities.
  3. Asking “why” and “what if” questions: Asking “why” and “what if” questions can help individuals consider the underlying causes and potential consequences of a situation.
  4. Practice mindfulness: Being present in the moment and focusing on the bigger picture can help individuals make more mindful and strategic decisions.

In summary, big picture thinking is the ability to consider the broader context or implications of a situation. It can be beneficial in business, decision-making, and problem-solving by helping individuals understand how their actions fit into the larger scheme of things and identify patterns, trends, and underlying causes. Cultivating big picture thinking can involve reflecting on past experiences, seeking diverse perspectives, asking “why” and “what if” questions, and practicing mindfulness. The following are illustrative examples.

Foundational Knowledge

Foundational knowledge is information that is broadly applicable to a domain. This tends to be theoretical and hands-off. For example, a university computer science program that teaches students about fundamentals such as the computational complexity of algorithms as opposed to specifics such as how to use a particular cloud platform. Learning specifics without foundational knowledge tends lead to confusion whereby an individual is doing work they don’t fully understand.

Think Global, Act Local

Think global, act local is the practice of considering the global impact of your actions. For example, a product design team for a laundry detergent that considers the fact that millions of kilograms of the product may end up in waste water each year. This may lead to biodegradable formulations that contain no harmful substances based on a principle such as waste is food.


Brainstorming is the process of generating ideas without a filter. It is common to ask as many people as possible to participate to generate outside ideas that may have value. This progresses to a process of evaluating ideas down to a shortlist. For example, a furniture company that brainstorms ideas for a new chair as opposed to beginning with assumptions such as a need to redesign an existing model.

Assumptions & Constraints

Avoiding unnecessary assumptions and constraints. For example, an automotive company that defines itself as a “transportation company” in a mission statement to avoid marketing myopia whereby they view the product as the mission as opposed to the value that they create.

First Principles

Thinking that begins with first principles that you know to be true or that you hold to be true. For example, a firm that begins a product development initiative with the principle that a new product has to serve customer needs and have a unique and valuable market position. This can be compared with focused thinking such as starting with the idea that you need to develop a new organic coffee product.

Strategic Thinking

Strategic thinking is planning that seeks to win in the long term. This can be contrasted with reactive or tactical approaches that only consider winning the current battle. In this context, the long term is the big picture. For example, a society that invests in new energy infrastructure that is more efficient and clean as opposed to giving subsidies to old energy industries that aren’t as clean.

Root Cause Analysis

Root cause analysis is the process of identifying the root cause of problems as opposed to addressing symptoms. For example, a jogger who finds that their knees are often sore who invests in a pair of highly cushioned running shoes in an attempt to lower the stresses on their knees. This can be compared to addressing the symptoms of the problem such as taking a pain reliever.

Design Thinking

Design thinking is the practice of looking at almost everything as a design problem. This often involves big picture thinking whereby you redesign systems to solve problems. For example, an office administrator who finds that office supplies always disappear during back to school season who implements a system whereby employees order supplies online for next day delivery that creates an audit trail of usage.

Systems Thinking

Systems thinking is the process of considering the broadest impact of changes. For example, a firm that begins to aggressively monitor employee communications and physical movements might considered big picture issues such as how this may damage the relationship of trust that exists between the firm its employees.


Innovation is the process of seeking leaps forward in value as opposed to gradual improvement. This almost always requires a view of the big picture whereby an individual is able to challenge the status quo with approaches that violate commonly held assumptions.


Creativity is the ability to create non-obvious value. This is a process of divergent thinking whereby an individual considers broad ideas outside of the conventional thinking of a domain.

Last Responsible Moment

Last responsible moment is the strategy of delaying work and decisions as late as possible without creating unreasonable risks. This avoids wasting time or making poor decisions if something in the big picture changes. For example, an author who doesn’t write a word until they’ve got the entire plot of a story worked out in their head.

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