Monday, March 7, 2011

Do I Really Need the Big Picture?

Picture yourself in a thick wooded area around dusk. The light that is filtering through the trees is casting a lot of deep shadows, which are proving to be more hindrance than help in determining what is ahead of you. Not really a problem in most cases, but this time, I was carrying an M-16, body armor, a ruck sac, and was the leader for a patrol on a mission. Let's just say it wasn't a walk through a park...

As we moved we came into proximity of a favorite ambush point for opposing forces. Tanks wouldn't fit amongst the trees and we were trying to avoid collateral damage, otherwise the area probably would have been blasted flat by now. The platoon was spread-out and concentrating on the ambush point. After all, many previous patrols were hit from that exact point. This time we were ready.

One problem... Apparently the ambusher read Sun Tzu, because the ambush didn't come from the "known" point. Instead it came from the right while we were spreading out our lines in anticipation of the ambush. Basically, the entire platoon was spread out like a shooting range, with each member just slightly farther away from the new ambush point. Machine gun fire went off all around us, causing casualties and confusion in it's wake.

How to respond? We needed to swing the line, get people in position, and try to use the cover from the woods to position ourselves on the ambusher. It took a good 10-15 seconds just to get everybody to register what was going on, with the screaming, gun fire, and people crashing through the brush. By the time it was all over, it had turned into a nightmare and the number of casualties were HUGE! Just as the ambush was finally contained, I learned that a fellow patrol to the east was overrun and there was a force of infantry heading in my direction. How was I going to salvage the platoon and the mission?

Thankfully I remembered two important things. There was another platoon (alpha) only a 1/4 mile to the west, who hadn't seen any contact yet. Second, there were medivac helicopters available to get the casualties out and a clearing about 100 yards ahead of us. I called my company commander, had him order the platoon to the west to move up to my position and secure a perimeter while the medivac choppers came in and lifted the wounded out. The remainder of my platoon would then link up with alpha and move to contain the incoming infantry. It turned out to be a very long day...

The saving grace of this was that I was in the woods of Northern Washington State, leading a patrol of cadets through a training exercise. It was a disaster, but I received a pass. Why did I receive a pass? Because I remembered the big picture. The test wasn't whether or not we could respond to or even survive the ambush. The test was to determine if the leader had the presence of mind to remember the big picture and make sound decisions that would provide for the best survival of the platoon and the accomplishment of the mission. I was 21 years old at the time...

Why am I sharing this with you? Because people tend to be myopic, looking at only their piece of the puzzle without realizing how decisions and events can impact the bigger picture. As leaders we CANNOT afford that situation. We need to be aware of how our decisions impact the greater strategy, as well as how events can impact the tasks set before us. Don't believe me? Try asking the leaders at HP and Dell (let alone Motorola, Nokia, Samsung, the list goes on and on) how they feel every time Apple makes a new product announcement.

A couple more examples just to bring the idea a little closer to home. During one of my projects, the floor space was redesigned and the rail system for a large piece of equipment was moved. Now, the person working on that piece of equipment didn't care that it got moved, because the distances were the same. But I had to look at the big picture. The rail would cause interference with another piece of machinery. Thankfully, neither machine needed to be in the same space at the same time, so the solution was easy. A new sensor package was needed to prevent one machine from clipping the other. Change order? Yes. Big picture issue? Yes. If it hadn't been identified early on, would it be a MONSTER issue? YES!

Second version is one where I wasn't the lead. International software implementation going on. The system was already configured for US use, but now needed to expand to several locations in Europe. Here's the problem. The developers in Europe operated like they were in a vacuum. They lost sight of the big picture. Instead of creating a separate regional calendar for all the local holidays, they just added all their holidays to the GLOBAL Calendar. Since the system ran planning based on the calendar, it was now attributing European holidays to the US work tables. Big Problem? I would say so. Why did it happen? Because the developers didn't take into account the big picture. In their smaller tests instances there was no impact, because the US planning engine wasn't turned on. It wasn't until the configurations were being loaded into the Production system that somebody noticed and thought to ask. Thankfully a fix was implemented before the system went live with the updates. BUT, it could have been a much bigger problem, if some data entry specialist didn't stop and say "Wait a minute..."

As a leader, a person cannot afford to ignore the big picture. Managers can concentrate on the trees, but a LEADER needs to see the whole forest as well. Next time you find yourself wrapped up in the details (which does need to happen occasionally) make sure to take a step back and look for your impacts. Otherwise you might be relying on a $13-$18 an hour data entry specialist to find the mistakes.


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