People working for large organizations are notorious offenders at this, but so, too, are individuals focused intensely on large projects for a long time. The crime? Losing sight of the big picture. People forget the real purpose for what they're doing. They forget why it matters and the work suffers as a result.
Often this happens because obligations accrue, like grit on the windshield of a car. Teams loose sight of what's in front of them. In fact, they often forget there's even a road to look for in the first place. Managers who force-feed task-oriented rubrics to creative teams without investing those teams in big picture motivations often find themselves degrading ultimate goals even as teams move toward them. Many managers try and convince their workforces that compartmentalized, discrete tasks separated from big-picture goals will enable individuals to focus more clearly on their individual roles. As a collective, the thinking goes, excellence of individuals will add up to more accurate sight pictures of the road ahead and the targets found there. Sometimes this works, but usually the process is neither efficient, nor done with any great aesthetic zest.
Here’s why. Vision blurs when tasks are reduced to decontextualized lists of details that do not appear to be part of anyone’s bigger picture. Rounder context falls away and motivations based on being part of a larger creative motivation cease to have much gravity.
But this is all easy critique. We understand the phenomenon already, almost intuitively. We joke ruefully about bureaucracy, about management, about keeping up with endless tasks and busywork that always seems to have an explanation, and we essentially fold under the pressure. We wither and we try to slog through paperwork, cleaning processes, staff meeting, intangible training programs. Larger goals get lost as millions of smaller goals consume time, attention, and—dare I say— lives of people obliged to get tasks done.
If you're waiting for my epiphany, I'm not going to pretend that I have a good solution to this, or at least not in a few hundred bloggy words on a Monday morning.
…I'd like to offer an observation.
Even though many will tell you their own skills soar above average, the truth is that high performance is hard to find. But it’s not impossible to find. Participants on those rare, high performance teams, no matter what the discipline, tend to share a particular trait. On high performance teams each player can be counted on for reliable, fully committed dedication to his or her job. It's not uncommon to find individuals paying attention to minute details on their own personal assignments because they deeply care about maximizing the performance of their own unique abilities. They also understand that others on the team respect them for the same reason. Team members may be specialists or serial specialists, religious zealots about their own unique worlds, including the requisite private nomenclatures that accrue when any one thing gets the benefit of singular focus. On high performance teams an interesting phenomenon often happens: minute technical details become proxies for the big picture, one person at a time. On scientific field expeditions or in surgical suites or in hot-shot legal offices or ambitious construction sites, it's a lot of work simply to keep discrete, specific technical aspects operating at near-peak performance. When they do, big picture dreams hardly creep into daily thoughts of the workers. Consider this: an emergency room nurse doesn't think, "I'm helping to raise the hospital's trauma recovery success rate," but instead thinks, "That post-op dressing needs to be replaced." It’s so easy to miss the value here because it’s so glaringly obvious: by valuing the excellence of individuals and properly respecting their unique domains of knowledge, the big picture benefits. Simultaneously, people in charge of small scale, discrete tasks (like properly caring for patients) feel like they can give their best to something bigger than themselves, like creating a great hospital.
The distinction is in the attitude of the craftwork itself. Minute, component expertise becomes the big picture. Expertise in discrete tasks, even ones that get changed and exchanged, becomes the reason to perform. Rather than tedious burdens to bear, atomized elements of a larger whole take on deep value for those performing the jobs. It's not that folks can't intellectually explain what a big picture may happen to be, but on a day to day basis the big picture is not the reason to do a job well. The little pictures are plenty. There's personal value in doing tasks at hand with acumen and finesse. For the ER nurse, the result of providing excellent care to individual patients will automatically contribute to helping the hospital's trauma recovery success rate, but that big picture is not the nurse's day to day motivation.
To my mind, this entire process scales and transfers smartly across the strata of working teams. The janitor of a hospital wing can be excellent just as the CEO of that hospital can be excellent. Both can contribute to the overall excellence of the hospital’s big picture goals. While it’s arguable that the CEO may have more responsibility to more people, it’s important to say that as an individual he or she can only do so much “work” in a day. High performance in service to a larger goal must be able to move with minimal encumbrances. The more institutional obligations accrue simply to serve themselves, the more the big picture begins to look like a movie set— shiny, but ultimately pure Potemkin.
Does this translate for individuals? It can. When working on creative enterprises alone, the big picture must provide a sense of purpose and merit, a reason to continue. It doesn't have to be fun, per se, but it must have reason to perpetuate. As we've seen, the big picture is not enough. Excellence and clarity (above all: clarity), only comes from the willingness to execute individual components of a larger project as if they had the innate value of the overarching mission. I'm not saying that stocking the office supplies at the fire house should be as important as pulling a crash victim from a burning sedan. This is not about a hierarchy actions. But creativity as a function of atomized excellence becomes excellence overall. No one can work on the big picture exactly. It's too big! We can only work on one thing at a time, the pieces and parts that make something larger. But when each of those things takes on a measure of integrity for it's own sake, the big picture will always be improved.