We all know what it feels like to get stuck “in the weeds”—being so deep in trying to solve a problem that we lose all perspective about why we’re doing what we’re doing. Even practiced senior leaders whose jobs require a 30,000-foot cruising altitude sometimes get too caught up in the details to be effective.
This is one of many topics Gorick Ng touches on in his new book, The Unspoken Rules: Secrets to Starting Your Career Off Right. Ng, a Research Associate in the Managing the Future of Work project at Harvard Business School, authored the book to help demystify unspoken expectations at work. It answers questions that we’ve all had (or will have) at some point in our careers. Questions like:
- How do I manage my time in the face of conflicting priorities?
- How do I build relationships when I’m working remotely?
- How do I ask for help without looking incompetent or lazy?
The wisdom within, gleaned from interviews with more than 500 business professionals spanning industries and job types, is intended to help people perform at their highest level, stand out and set themselves up for career success.
I recently had the opportunity to catch up with Ng to hear his take on how to get out of the weeds to gain some perspective.
Seeing the Big Picture
This idea of “seeing the big picture,” Ng says, is about taking a step back from each of our respective jobs, roles, and departments and asking ourselves, “What are we trying to accomplish here in the first place?”
“Something I hear often from leaders is that the people they manage aren’t organizationally aware, which is a fancy way of saying that they’re putting their heads down and doing good work, but they’re not really seeing how all the pieces fit together,” Ng explained.
“Big picture thinking” is an example of one of those unspoken expectations that Ng discusses in the book. A lot of times, people aren’t aware that their bosses expect anything from them other than getting the work done. It drills down to what Ng calls the “Three C’s:” competence, commitment, and compatibility.
“The minute you present yourself at work—whether it’s in a cover letter, an interview, on your first day—your coworkers, managers, partners and clients are sizing you up,” Ng explained.
Those people are all asking themselves the same three questions about you:
- Can you do your job well? (Competence)
- Are you excited to be here? (Commitment)
- Do you get along with us? (Compatibility)
“Your job, and all of our jobs, is to convince the people around us that the answer to all three questions is ‘yes,’” said Ng.
The ability to zoom out far enough to see the big picture showcases all three C’s. Someone who is competent understands why it’s important to connect the day-to-day work to larger goals and company objectives. A committed employee cares enough about the organization to make those connections, rather than simply checking boxes off their to-do list. And finally, someone who is compatible with the organization is deeply aligned with those goals and the direction the organization is going.
How to Practice Big Picture Thinking: An Exercise
Seeing the big picture takes practice. Ng shared a fill-in-the-blank exercise leaders can use with their teams to help get them thinking bigger. Simply ask team members to fill in the blanks in the following five sentences:
- My employer helps these clients or customers do these things by these means. For example, if a manager at Google were using this exercise, they would probably say something like, Google helps companies sell targeted ads by taking individuals’ search queries and matching them up with websites that they might be interested in.
- Recently my employer has been pursuing these things to achieve these goals. In Google’s case, recently Google has been entering into the podcast market with Google Play and other services in order to compete against Apple iTunes and other platforms.
- My employer competes with these organizations because of these reasons. We can imagine that Google competes with Facebook because they both sell digital advertising.
- This problem is my company’s, manager’s, or department’s top priority right now. One of Google’s company priorities is embracing an AI-centric approach, so perhaps solving for bias in machine learning is a top-priority problem Google’ right now.
- And finally, this problem is a problem that I can personally help fix. The problem in question doesn’t have to be the same as the one listed above, but the key is getting the employee to connect the dots between a company problem and an area they have ownership of.
“How well your teammates are able to fill in the blanks on their own can tell you a lot about how organizationally aware they really are,” said Ng. “And if they’re ever feeling stuck, maybe it’s time to refresh themselves on numbers four and five.”
Staying on Top of Industry News
Another way to stay organizationally aware, Ng suggests, is setting up Google Alerts for topics that matter to your industry and the world at large. Google will then send you an email digest on all the news coverage for that topic within a certain time frame.
“I encourage people to do this for your company, CEO, competitors, industry terms and topics that you’re curious about,” said Ng. “One of the unspoken rules of getting promoted that I talk about in the book really comes down to this: the better you understand what matters to those who matter, the better your chances of getting a promotion.”
Kevin Kruse is the Founder + CEO of LEADx, a platform that scales and sustains leadership habits throughout an organization. Kevin is also a New York Times bestselling author of Great Leaders Have No Rules, 15 Secrets Successful People Know About Time Management, and Employee Engagement 2.0.