Over the past few weeks we have looked at what I am calling big picture learning—that which enables us to interpret and effectively manage the most persistent and difficult problems in our lives, individually and collectively.

We’ve looked at what it is, and its benefits.

Here are some examples of big picture learning in action:

  1. Rethinking education. In this engaging animated talk, Dr. Ken Robinson offers a provocative perspective on modern education in the western world [1]. He presents hypotheses about what is valued, rewarded, and produced by our education system. Robinson helps us stand back and consider why we educate the way we do, including when and how these ideas originated, and how our present education system may stifle creative expression and creative problem solving. Robinson’s presentation stimulates big picture learning because it prompts us to ask basic questions, in this case about something with which we have familiarity: What is its aim? Is this what we want? If not, what do we want and why? How would we know that we are meeting our goal(s)?
  2. Understanding variation. In Out of the Crisis Dr. W. Edwards Deming highlights the importance of understanding variation in systems. Systems are everywhere—globally, nationally, regionally, at work, at school, in our communities, in our families, even in our own bodies. Yet very few of us have a basic understanding of systems. We may know what we want or expect of various systems—we want the bus to arrive on time, our immune system to function effectively, or our local economy to provide good jobs and living conditions. Yet when things don’t work the way we want or expect we get upset, with no idea of how to improve the system. Once we engage in big picture learning about systems, and variation, the fog will begin to lift and we will have a better understanding of how to understand and possibly improve the systems in our lives. And, when it comes to understanding variation we all make two mistakes on a regular basis. This will be a topic of a future blog.
  3. Community interest. I recently attended a meeting of the community association for my neighborhood. On two or three occasions members seemed to be taking positions based primarily on self-interest. Nicole, our community association chairperson, was very clear as she handled these comments: “It’s about all of us, not just what benefits or does not benefit any particular individual or family.” In my view our chairwoman clearly understood the aim of the association: to bring benefit to the community as a whole. She was also clear that self-interest interferes with that aim. One of the maxims of big picture learning is that we need to reduce and ultimately eliminate self-interest if we are to produce the best possible result for the system as a whole.

In all three of these examples we are being encouraged to ask “What is the aim, and what are the desired outputs, of this particular system?

The best managers, teachers, and coaches engage in big picture learning by:

  • Looking at the whole, not just individual or subgroup actions, effects and benefits;
  • Clarifying the aim or purpose of the system, e.g. “What’s the end game here?”, or “What are we trying to accomplish?”; and
  • Encouraging selflessness, a willingness to give up personal comfort or gains in resources, reputation or recognition for the benefit of all.

In upcoming posts we will explore these and other themes in more depth, particularly systems thinking and variation.

[1] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDZFcDGpL4U