Seeing the forest AND the trees


When I use the expression "he can't see the forest for the trees," I mean a person is so detail-oriented that he misses the big picture. I use this frequently at work because I enjoy seeing forests more than inspecting trees.

I would rather not focus on branches, twigs, and leaves when I could take a broader, more holistic view.  I believe seeing the large scope of the problem is always the "better" place to start.

Myers-Briggs would say that's a function of my ENTP wiring, but you can also call it my comfort zone.

Unfortunately, being a natural "forest see-er" has its own set of issues.

I miss potential opportunities because I didn't notice a telling detail in one of the "trees."  Sometimes, I miss ideas that come from a more careful view of the environment.  An example from my home life illustrates the point.

When we travel as a family, we take "the Big Camera" (that's the name for our SLR), and are teaching the kids how to use it.

The rules for operating the Big Camera are short and simple: the strap must stay around your neck and you can't use it near water.  Otherwise, they are free to do what they will and shoot away.

If they want to take pictures of each other making silly faces, fine. If an ant becomes their primary artistic focus at the zoo full of amazing other animals, O.K. then. If the most fascinating thing at the gardens is a dandelion, then that can be the target.

Who are we to say what catches the eye of the artist?

When we review the pictures at the end of the day, inevitably I'm surprised with the great images the kids have captured.   One summer we went to London & Paris.  On many of the walks and/or "dull moments," the kids would take  control of the camera.

Here is a sample of what they liked and snapped...

A lock near Kensington Gardens.


The mechanics from the Eiffel Tower.


A "missing" sign from an entrance to the London Underground.


"Why did you take that picture?" I'd ask. They would pause a moment, contemplating their obvious response, "I thought it looked interesting."

They found inspiration for new images in small details.  They were inspired by views the adults hurried past.

I see what I miss because I look at the Eiffel Tower as a whole and fail to see the mechanics.

The Eiffel Tower isn't fantastic simply because of its enormity or height.  Its detail is equally as inspiring.

If I see only the "whole," then I fail to appreciate the engineering of the structure. I miss the lights that go up the side and that make it beautiful at night.

The tower is great because someone thought of details such as painting the structure three slightly different shades to enhance its appearance.  If I overlook the whole, I miss the majesty; but if I ignore the little things, then I lose the more subtle signs of greatness.

As I think about innovating at work, I need to challenge myself to pay attention to both -  to find interest in the details and also to see things differently at BOTH the forest and the tree level.

There are plenty of people who see only the little particulars of a problem and plenty of other people who see the big picture, but the potential for innovation comes with being able to operate with both perspectives in view.