Sunday, December 13, 2009

Getting the Big Picture

A discussion about enterprise architecture on Twitter exposed an interesting difference of opinion about this topic. In response to the question whether people felt threatened by enterprise architecture, @pauljansen replied "yes and rightfully so. An EA often sees the bigger picture 'they' cannot."

Paul's comment raises several interesting questions.
  1. What does "seeing the bigger picture" really mean?
  2. What is the ability to "see the bigger picture" dependent on - is it inborn talent or something else?
  3. What is (or should be) the relationship between people who "see the bigger picture" and those who don't (for whatever reason)?
Exactly the same questions arise for "systems thinking" (whatever that means), but since this particular debate was between enterprise architects, I shall stick to that specialism for the purposes of this post.

Firstly, let's acknowledge that enterprise architecture (as commonly practised) mandates a particular set of lenses for viewing the enterprise - based on a set of abstract structural models - and these lenses frame what enterprise architects mean by "seeing the bigger picture".

More generally, seeing the bigger picture entails an understanding of how things join up. EA models are supposed to document this understanding. For some people, "seeing the bigger picture" is equivalent to "strategic thinking", and the two terms were used interchangeably in the discussion.

Does "seeing the bigger picture" call for some special ability or mindset?

@jpmorgenthal said that "strategic is a skill that cannot be learned", adding "it's genetic", and in answer to @aleksb6, who asked "if all behaviors are both nature and nurture, why is strategic thinking unique in your opinion?", @jpmorgenthal answered "strategic thought is not a behavior, it's an attribute like eye color".

@pauljansen took the view that it was both nature and nurture. "Some had 'the right eye color' but never used / recognised / cultivated it." @pauljansen "Short: left brain versus whole brain; those in certain positions came there because their rational focus, by talent or nurtured."

This sounds like enterprise architects have some special power to understand complex problems, which distinguishes them from the rest of the management team. To my mind, the trouble with this belief is that it encourages a kind of them-and-us attitude, which perhaps reinforces the feelings of threat and frustration on both sides.

The idea that some people have a superior ability to see the bigger picture resembles an earlier belief that some people had a superior ability to take a long-term view. Elliott Jaques based his theory of requisite organization on the principle that each level in the management hierarchy should be associated with a different time horizon, and it was this that justified higher remuneration for people in senior management positions.

In contrast with this view, @aleksb6 thought that many people would be capable of seeing the bigger picture if they wanted to. "They can, but not incented to see!" In other words, not seeing the bigger picture is often a question of perspective and motivation, not intrinsic ability. I agree with this.

I also partially agree with @enectoux 's comment that "Not everyone is able to see the big picture. Take an expert in any area... Not the right mindset." as long as it is understood that mindset changes with perspective and motivation. If someone goes to work for a large software vendor, or a technical person moves into a sales role, she will need to adopt a mindset that is appropriate for the new role.

And it is not hard to see how the "bigger picture" mindset conflicts with the mindset needed for certain activities, as @pauljansen acknowledges. "Alas, for many clients it is a disability, be it 'unlearned' in favor of focus (convergence)."

Perspective and mindset, motivation and interest - these are all important factors that influence which pictures we see. I recently came across a great example of the importance of perspective. Here's a pretty rural cottage for sale ...

A general view of West Beach Cottage on the Dungeness Nature Reserve

... and here's a bigger picture ...

A general view of West Beach Cottage on the Dungeness Nature Reserve

Source: Daily Mail, 29 October 2009

The Daily Mail bills the second picture as "Reality" - but of course it is only one reality, and there are many other big pictures. If you take the photograph from the other side, you can see miles of uninhabited landscape surrounding the cottage [BBC News, 28 October 2009, Daily Telegraph, 29 October 2009]. How you take the picture depends on what outcome you want. Bigger isn't necessarily better, if you are standing in the wrong place.

@pauljansen perspective is a nonrational rightbrain ability, and there4 it matters indeed @sboray perspective is a notion not logically deduced
@sboray what meets the eye and what meets the mind r different
@jpmorgenthal re: pictures, a strategic person would not look at each in isolation, but in relation to each other

In my next post Selling the Big Picture, I shall discuss (with further quotes from the Twitter debate) how pictures great and small, simple and complex, can be used to help or hinder the relationship between those who think they "get" the big picture, and those who apparently "don't get it".

For another example, see Big Picture Again (June 2011) 


  1. Richard, interesting debate. my own experience is from the university. and this experience suggests that " seeing a picture" is not so much a question of ability, but of the community, with which you want to identify. or rather automatically identify. for an EA this is the organisation as a whole, which is a much bigger picture than that of someone working in a business unit (or faculty)
    so the idea is that if you are placed in a different position, your picture will change accordingly.
    with regard to them-vs-us thinking, that's not totally unexpected, nor is it totally wrong. it occurs in a very natural way when people from different communities meet.
    (working in a university, I am used to the fact that scientists often don't want to identify with the university, but are loyal to people or organisations working in their specific area of interest. )
    bert van zomeren

  2. I love Bert's comment, because it makes a great link between perspective and affiliation.

  3. ... and yet this very true and relevant view of 'changing position, changing perspective, changing capability' does not hold in most cases, and certainly not in the 'ability'-discussion. Following this line of reasoning we might as well conclude that we would/could all be Rembrandt but for our career choices and present position... I maintain that, in the very same (viewpoint) position and circumstances, an EA needs to be a whole-brain-operated scientific artist as well as artistic scientist, while the non-EA at the same viewpoint position will likely be a leftbrain dominated, logical person. In the above picture example: the EA does not choose between the one or the other, but is capable of 'integrating both' and yet even translating both to other 'pictures' that would explain relevance to yet other stakeholders.

  4. Building on what Paul says...yes EA is integrative; it includes "all within" and "all without". It is pluralism acknowledging that different modes of life exist in a meta-framework. In such a heterogeneous cosmos or an eco-system, EA promotes certain way of thinking that is both intuitive and also rational while overcoming mental blind-spots and thinking that is overtly rear- view mirror and statistical.
    Regarding the lenses and point of reference chosen to look or observe – one will often experience paradox of observation brought by the unique combinations of “the observer", the thing "being observed" and the person "observing". Adding to the conundrum is the intellectual "process of observation". This issue has been much discussed by David Bohm in his proposed theory of "implicate order", while trying to reconcile how each Einstein and Neil Bohr were looking in two different ways at the same reality. These two scientists initially collaborated with lot of enthusiasm but owing to different way of looking at things experienced completely different realities. Finally both stopped talking to one another and collaborating. This strain between the deterministic physicists and in-deterministic quantum physicists has lead to quest for unified theory that would reconcile everything. Similar is the fate in EA. The systems are developed employing “Cartesian Theory” in an object oriented way, while the eco-system behaves in a completely different way. This issue of not being able to reconcile introduces ‘Cartesian Dilemma”. No matter how one struggles to find answers and ways to better build things, the dilemma will continue to exist. The need for overcoming will be strongly felt when the one will need to scale the boundaries of system thinking when resources in the world become scarce and then humans have to optimize what is available to them all put together.
    David Bohm uses the “hologram” as a holistic perspective to describe a certain way of thinking and observation that includes all point of references. And, also while one is using a certain perspective, the isolated piece of the reality being observed presents itself in such a way that it is capable of creating the entire reality that is hidden.
    From both visual and mental view
    “Perspective” lead to renaissance in design and development
    Then it was “cubism” that captured the reality emerging from fragmentation. This still remained in the Cartesian system. Like the Zachman Framework – it is a Cartesian Form, so limited in application for transformative work in large and complex system needing pluralistic considerations. Cubism rules in almost all our life today, wallstreet, tv media etc
    The next renaissance I think will be in the lines of “implicate order”, that will re-form the society.
    David Peat, student of David Bohm pursued the ideas of Bohm, especially "implicate order" and he has set-up a learning center in Pari, Italy, where he teaches wonderful ideas related to systems thinking and more.
    When we begin to study and understand what is holistic thinking, not only will we be able to think with some enhanced consciousness we will also begin to experience some mind-matter related events.
    I would assume that incapability in people to bring their mind to holistic thinking is because their mind is not yet attuned. And, each and everyone are capable of reaching this destiny. Unfortunately in IT design and development, most are trained to be programmatic in forming their thoughts and are rigidly driven by the semantics of the programs languages. This introduced mechanistic intellectual behavior, and it is an affliction, although good for manufacturing type linear jobs.

    Demanding change, yes it is the most neede...but unfortunately it seems dead and stuck only in the political slogan :)

  5. I want to challenge Paul's comment that EA promotes whole-brain thinking while the non-EA is a left-brain person. This is not only demonstrably untrue (EAs working for creative organisations will almost certainly encounter some heavily right-brained people) but is undesirable. I don't wish to be part of some elite and, if I was, my "elite-ness" would certainly alienate many of the people I was looking to influence.

    I may have an alternative view of some things, however: nothing wrong with sharing that and enabling the people I engage with to improve their own understanding. But I feel quite strongly that my role is to help them improve themselves, it isn't about my abilities or status: it's all about them.

  6. As forestandtrees indicates, dividing people into "Left Brain" and "Right Brain" is both scientifically incorrect and sociologically problematic. Somehow the popular myth has circulated that good-thinking is located on one side of the head and bad-thinking on the other, and this encourages people to identify themselves as members of some RightBrain or WholeBrain elite, and to identify everyone else as LeftBrain Other. I completely agree with forestandtrees in rejecting this myth.

  7. Was not even aware of the myth Richard mentions and forestandtrees may have assumed, I rather followed the scientific proof of different functions of each brain half and the simple fact that technical people that excel in their field do so with functions found mainly in the left side of the brain. Nothing to do with 'elite' either way, just about knowing your strengths and weaknesses and work together (like Einstein and Bohr) on the very best results, both creative and pragmatic. However I must add that one should never deny ones own talents and gifts for the sake of social correctness (according to others), even if some might see this as "elite-ness" :-)

  8. Here's what Wikipedia says on Lateralization of brain function.

    "Popular psychology tends to make broad and sometimes pseudoscientific generalizations about certain functions (e.g. logic, creativity) being lateral, that is, located in either the right or the left side of the brain. Researchers often criticize popular psychology for this, because the popular lateralizations often are distributed across both hemispheres, although mental processing is divided between them."