Despite the best of intentions and best efforts, managing
by results is (as Dr. Myron Tribus put it) like keeping
your eye on the rear view mirror when driving.

From W.E. Deming:

“Sure we have to solve problems. Certainly stamp out the fire. Stamp out the fire and get nowhere. Stamp out the fires puts us back to where we were in the first place. Taking action on the basis of results without theory of knowledge, without theory of variation, without knowledge about a system. Anything goes wrong, do something about it, overreacting; acting without knowledge, the effect is to make things worse. With the best of intentions and best efforts, managing by results is, in effect, exactly the same, as Dr. Myron Tribus put it, while driving your automobile, keeping your eye on the rear view mirror, what would happen? And that’s what management by results is, keeping your eye on results.” (1)

Dr. W. Edwards Deming was the American statistician, philosopher and management theorist instrumental in rebuilding Japan after World War II, helping transform that country into an economic superpower.

This quote illustrates Deming’s view that most of us, faced with almost any kind of problem, will tend to “stamp out the fire” without inquiry into root cause or causes.

In other words, we tend to act without wisdom. Yet, as discussed in the previous post, big picture challenges require solutions from another level.

Today’s post will focus on the benefits of big picture learning.

Why would, or why should, an individual – or an organization – invest time and money studying and understanding systems, theories of knowledge and variation, and other aspects of big picture learning?

Or we can ask, what will happen if we don’t invest resources in big picture learning?

Two results: (1) more of the same systemic problems that face us now, and (2) new systemic problems bringing additional suffering.

Unless we stand back and look at the greater – actually, greatest – good, we are likely to remain in a world where, for example…

  • Individuals suffer from anxiety, sickness and loss;
  • Organizations experience lack of purpose, inner conflict and economic failure; and
  • Communities, regions and nations endure crimes, poverty and war.

Without big picture thinking, we tend to experience events as problems. And, we tend to put energy into ‘quick fixes’ with a mistaken belief that we have ‘solved the problem’. Most of the time, however, these problems are in fact symptoms of deeper, systemic issues.

As Deming and others point out, we make matters worse through this uninformed approach. Each of us can therefore benefit immeasurably through the vision and direction that comes from systems thinking—liberating ourselves from such chronic problems.

Learners often think “That’s nice but I do not have the ability to tackle this sort of learning.” Or “I’ll leave these big questions and problems to somebody else with the smarts to handle them.”

No. Systems – biological/ecological, sociological, economic/geographic and so forth – are everywhere, so much so that one person, or some elite group of profound thinkers, cannot possibly tackle them all.

Furthermore, each one of us is deeply entwined in systems that are unique to you or to your close communities. Just look at your body (a system), your family (another system), or your local community (yet another).

It’s important to let learners know that leaving big picture learning to others just doesn’t make sense. Each of us, to the extent of our abilities can and ideally should try to adopt big picture thinking and learning.

A good instructor/mentor/teacher will engage in big picture thinking and encourage others to do the same by explaining that big picture learning helps you:

  • Gain wisdom that will guide you to the most beneficial decisions. You will gain a deeper understanding of cause and effect, and be able to remove the root causes of your most intractable ‘problems’.
  • Gain your own personal system of profound knowledge, including a theory of knowledge that will help you make sense of your world.
  • Become more effective, and grow your circle of influence(2). As you grow in understanding of the systems around you, you will make increasingly better choices, decisions and recommendations, bringing lasting improvement in your own life and in the lives of those around you.
  • Become more employable. As you demonstrate an ability to solve difficult problems, your services will be in more demand.
  • Attain clarity of thinking, and message. With clarity of thinking and message you will probably gain a happier, more peaceful state of mind, which may in turn lead to healthier choices, and longer life.

Please read our next post on examples of big picture thinking.

[1] The Deming of America, Documentary broadcast on the PBS network (1991)