Managing the paradox of big picture & operational precision

Early one weekend morning, a CEO of a Fortune 500 company calls his HR Head to discuss replacing a key executive. Jason, the employee in question, headed the healthcare vertical, a real revenue churner in the firm’s US$30-billion portfolio of diversified business. His decision to move on was unexpected. The hunt for a successor started cold. An interim replacement was entrusted to manage the show until an appropriate leader was found. Internal and external options were frantically explored. “We need a Big-Picture Guy,” the CEO insisted, adding “our business is at an inflection point. We need someone to take it to the next level, grow it exponentially via disruption and a mindset shift.” As the search dragged on, confusion over search expectations developed. Candidates were rejected on frivolous grounds. Key stakeholders started losing patience. The frustrated CEO started refusing to meet candidates, claiming the options being presented were a waste of time. Enter Mike, the Mr. Right that the Head of HR was seeking. The CEO was convinced to put aside 30 minutes to meet the so-called ideal candidate. The meeting lasted for hours. After it ended, the CEO thanked HR for finding his “Big Picture Guy.” Everyone concerned felt Mike was well suited to lead the business into a new orbit. The focus shifted to getting him onboard and hitting the ground running.

Time flew. The first six months witnessed everyone receiving Mike with warmth, not to mention awe. He was admired as a thought leader who could visualize the big picture and simplify it for rank-and-file consumption. Mike was the man in demand. After a year, however, the situation started to change. Simply put, the company’s Man in Shining Armor started losing his popularity as the other side of the coin came into focus. Instead of his strengths, people saw Mike’s inadequacies. People noted that he didn’t dirty his hands to understand the nitty-gritties. They started to say he operates at a superficial level without the acumen to zoom in and address the root of problems. As a result, the CEO started to question whether or not the company had made a hiring mistake. “Mike,” the CEO thought, “isn’t aligned with me. He was supposed to provide strategic bandwidth to scale the business to a new high, but his understanding of issues appears quite nebulous and he can’t even put his house in order operationally.

Meanwhile, Mike was also unhappy. As far as he was concerned, the job he accepted was to provide strategic direction, not get bogged down by the nuances of operations. But he couldn’t focus on big picture because he lacked the freedom to do so. And his superiors didn’t understand that Mike’s direct reports were not taking ownership of their responsibilities, creating an upward delegation of very basic operational issues that consumed his time and energy.

Mike desperately needed mentoring. As a leader responsible for thought leadership and operational precision, he was caught in a dilemma. But the dilemma was created by his filter, subconsciously developed through his own set of beliefs, experiences and observations. He saw himself as a big-picture person who should be free to leave the details to be managed by others. And this mindset prevented him from navigating across the two ends of the leadership spectrum. Many leaders pigeon-hole themselves in “either/or” categories. As a result, they find it difficult to break the glass ceiling of their self-limiting beliefs.

Life is replete with dilemmas that force choosing one thing over another, which is rarely easy. These challenges create paradoxes. And managing paradoxes effectively is one of the challenges of leadership. It is about balancing contending strains that pull apart our available resources, time and energy. A finite timespan to do things forces us to prioritize. But when we do, we cannot lose sight of the overarching plot. The answer is not either/or. Leadership is not about maintaining position. It is about navigating along an assigned/chosen course. Leaders like Blanchard, Mandela and Gandhi manage the surfeit of paradoxes because they are able to keep the bigger picture intact and deep-dive into operational issues, which helps the vision become manifest

EMBRACING PARADOX

It isn’t easy facing a dilemma that forces a tradeoff between two responsibilities or forces us to focus on both simultaneously. It induces fear and makes us feel restless, uncomfortable and unsure. Managing two ends of a continuum often demands a conflicting mindset, divergent approach and contradicting philosophy. The time and energy requirements are different. Even the measures and matrices are at a significant variance. There is a fight for resources, competencies and skills.  The perception of people around us, who are constantly watching, is also divided. They tend to categorize us as “Champions of Either/or,” not someone adept at handling both. As a result, leaders are typically typecast into the strategic or operational camp, where they build walls of self-limiting beliefs. They stop crossing boundaries and start exploring efficiency as well as effectiveness within siloes, where they hit their lateral glass ceiling and justify their existence with “Depth Expertise” or “Subject Matter Expertise.”

Some common examples of paradox are:

  • Experiment or stability
  • Compete or co-create
  • Continuity or disruption
  • Manage or moderate
  • Work or personal life
  • Serendipity or design
  • Freedom or control
  • Lead alone or build federations of support

Paradoxes need to be embraced. After all, they are only going to increase in scale, scope and ambiguity. And they have huge ramifications. They influence an organization’s strategy, structure, design and management practices. People who attain mastery in managing such paradoxes are often recognized as “paradigm pioneers.” They can take two diametrically opposite ideas or stances and see them together rather than either/or, a concept introduced as “integrative thinking” in The Opposable Mind by Roger Martin. As a result, paradoxes are often the source of innovations. Look at the problem of scarcity and resource constraints in providing superior healthcare in the emerging countries such as China and India. The situation left many organizations wondering whether they should focus on eradicating anomalies in healthcare infrastructure or commit resources to the highly profitable technology/services sector. But while others aligned with one of the two diametrically opposite choices, a few like TCS leveraged technology and services prowess to bring efficiencies to the healthcare supply chain and infrastructure. In this case, dilemma created opportunities for innovation because leaders managed the organizational paradoxes by seizing the white spaces between two contexts.

BIG PICTURE: THE COSMOS OF BUSINESS CANVAS

When everyone else saw a flock of birds, the Wright Brothers saw an opportunity. Bold innovations and a new industry that changed the transportation canvas of the world followed. Business leaders that were the prodigy of ICT (Internet, Communication & Technology) visualized back and middle office work being done by companies across the world. The outsourcing industry that followed changed the dynamics of work origination and its delivery. Some entrepreneurial people who disliked having to go to banks to make transactions imagined banks coming to them in their homes. This imagination then transformed itself into a reality, first with telephone and internet banking and now mobile banking. The frustration of patients who wasted considerable time completing diagnostics in the absence of quality and real-time pathology led to a revolution in medical diagnostic service and the healthcare supply chain.

Big pictures were also conceived in other fields such as humanity and civilization. A wonderful example is the town Auroville, a French colony in Pondicherry, a union territory of India. Auroville is a seat of spirituality conceptualized by Indian sage Aurobindo and his spiritual companion Mirra Alfassa, commonly known as “The Mother.” A half decade ago, they conceived a place in the universe that is home to people from all societies/communities willing to believe in it and work for humanity. This is symbolized by a giant globe Temple called the “Matre-Mandir.” The temple was built on soil brought by individuals from 146 countries across the world that serves as a foundation for peace and harmony. There have been many such examples of the big pictures conceived in the past and they clearly show that for an imagination to get converted into reality, a journey through the following ICSAR™ stages must occur:

  • Imagination, meaning the seeding of an idea.
  • Canvasification, meaning the transference of visualized thoughts into a mosaic that forms the platform for meaningful discussion, war-gaming and scenario planning.
  • Socialization, meaning the process of seeking buy-in via comments, endorsements and critique
  • Architectural Construction, meaning the laying and embedding of physical, social and technological infrastructure on which the imagination would run.
  • Regulationization, meaning overcoming hurdles presented by existing norms – social, political and economic. Regulations must eventually change to embrace disruptive innovations and allow a new picture to be accepted by society. For example, despite the available technology, Amazon’s visionary drone delivery system will remain on paper if regulations do not change to accommodate the future retail delivery.

After these five stages, traction starts building for achieving necessary milestones in the journey of big-picture realization. Look at the picture (see right), which people see it as a wonderful array of dispersion from a common source. The creator set out to put his internal vision on a piece of paper in certain manner so others would see it this way. But after he started, the originator had to work around hurdles that stood in the way of transferring his vision into a more coherent, meaningful, pragmatic and practical realism for others to see. While wondering about the creators of such pictures, the following questions come to mind:

  • Who are the creators of such pictures?
  • Are they limited in numbers?
  • Are they members of a specialized breed? Naturally gifted? Divinely blessed?
  • Can they be groomed? The questions are endless.

A study of all-time big picture visionaries of 20th century reveals that they typically marked the arrival of a new era, appearing when there was turbulence, tectonic shifts and radical disruptions. Above all, they were driven by a quest to make the world a better place. They were clearly naturally gifted enough to see the threads leading from “Abstract to Absolute.” And they all had the ability to find a core team of believers, supporters and collaborators—who were equally important to the visionary endgame. And while we are not really in a position to significantly influence the supply of big-picture thinkers, increasing the support pool that can be leveraged by them seems feasible. And that could improve progress and growth. But we need to focus on understanding and building the skills that take operational people closer to the level of big-picture creators.

As seen in Graphic One, there are five levels in this grooming process:

GRAPHIC ONE

By grooming the skills associated with Levels II-IV, we can create an entire big-picture ecosystem that will better support and accelerate the work of the Level I pioneers while helping uncover big-picture leaders currently lying dormant for a various reasons.

OPERATION PRECISION: THE NUANCE OF GETTING THINGS DONE

Picture ants as they relentlessly go about stocking rations for winter. Then imagine their plight if they falter. Operational precision is like that. It demands persistent commitment to the goal. Deadlines are sacrosanct. Standards are set in stone. The need for quality is indisputable. And the focus on execution can never falter.

We all know what had happened after a piece of foam insulation broke off the space shuttle Columbia.  Whenever operational precision gets compromised, the bigger picture takes a hit. As a result, attention to detail is as important as vision. Inarguably, the big picture will not unfold under the following conditions: 

  • If is not held firmly by its identified custodian
  • If it is not demystified adequately to the rank and file
  • If it is not mentally visualized and organized in unique segments
  • If segment ownerships are not assigned
  • If the interplay of various segments is not addressed
  • If ownership lacks the vision of manifesting the assigned component
  • If the underlying structure is not clearly articulated
  • If the systems and processes responsible for delivery of outcomes are not engineered or are outdated
  • If the technology on which the processes and systems are embedded is not effectively interfaced or have become obsolete
  • If the partner ecosystem is not crafted with an intent to generate collective value
  • If the deliverables and outcome measures of each component are not identified
  • If the competencies, skills and attitude required for delivering a particular value (through products and services) are not identified
  • If the capability engine meant to create competencies and skill sets is not invested in or is old-fashioned
  • If a desired collective behavior is not well defined to support productivity
  • If all these set of activities and actions are not tied to time and space

Achieving a strategic outcome involves herculean drudgery. However, if the big picture is compelling, the drudgery transforms itself into a spirited pursuit.

RIDING A TWIN HEAD HORSE

Leaders are torn apart managing diametrically opposite ends of a continuum. Some believe we need a one set of big-picture people and another group to manage operations. My own experience and management research renders me a strong believer in the leadership journey that revels in both, alternates between imagining the macro picture and literally driving the details to complete it. Good leaders conceive the big picture and toil through the related operational rigor.

Twenty seven years ago, I joined an Army cavalry unit as a young lieutenant in charge of a tank, the basic element of a war-fighting machine. I was asked not to look at the tank as stand-alone equipment. Instead, I was told to see it as part of the cohesive troop unit organized to engage the enemy in battle. My commander said: “Son, you never fight your battle alone. You need someone to give you a flanking fire when engaging an enemy tank head on. And you need covering fire after disclosing your position to engage the enemy.” I also learned that it is not the firepower alone, but the firepower with maneuver, that makes us potent against the enemy. As a single tank commander, I imagined the maneuver of three tanks, covering a battle space of five square kilometers. As a troop leader years later, I was forced to visualize the formations and maneuver of a squadron comprising 14 tanks, covering a battle space of 20 square kilometers. After a few more years, I was pushed to imagine the formations and maneuver of a full regiment with 45 tanks over a battle space of 100 square kilometers. I found myself mentally projected into an integrated battle zone, 100 kilometers deep into the enemy territory, where multiple thrusts were building, various formations were manifesting and different maneuvers were orchestrating. A third dimension in the form of Air Force was superimposed. Throughout this journey, I also worked multiple times as a staff officer with various general officers, gaining access to senior leadership intent throughout various war games and scenario planning exercises. These simulations provided me the high-above-ground view of warfare in various terrains and operations. This experience enabled me to visualize divisions, corps and armies manifesting themselves into an imaginary battle space, orchestrated into a complex battle zone covering hundreds of squares kilometers in deserts, plains or mountains. This was a truly big-picture experience. And if one arrived into it without first imagining it, he would stand no chance. There are no real rehearsals for battle. The rehearsals are in the mind.

At each stage of my military career, I was forced to visualize bigger future pictures while deploying the current one operationally. At each stage, I was battling a paradox of managing the current operations and imagining how my operations are part of a bigger picture. When in pursuit of big picture, I learned, one must arrive before he arrives. Simply put, bigger picture is always future-forward, never a hindsight reflection.

Now, let us look at a similar journey in the context of a corporation. Twenty eight years ago, straight out of business school, John joined a $500-million technology conglomerate. With a management degree in hand, he is named executive assistant to the CEO. With other new recruits landing more glamorous assignments, John was not excited about being an EA. He didn’t realize the CEO had been looking someone with a questioning mind, the willingness to learn and an ability to stitch together insights in a coherent manner. Within weeks, John found himself reading multiple reports and presentations while shadowing the CEO in strategic meetings. It was tough dealing with the scale and scope of the work, not to mention the CEO’s never-ending demand for details. John was constantly caught between his boss’s expectations and the nonchalant responses he got to requests for information from business unit heads. And yet, he started circumventing unit heads to obtain the information required by the CEO, who would seldom step in to help. More often than not, John managed by himself. In this journey, he discovered a disjointed leadership perception of information across the value chain. Each level of the leadership looked at things differently. And John noticed that the CEO still managed to integrate everything into a big picture.

After a few years, John moved from merely surviving to thriving. He now understood the intricacies of the North American market, the potential in China, the complexities of emerging markets and the need for frequent business restructuring to stay relevant. Then he was handed a new role as a team leader in a remote manufacturing unit. John was not pleased. He wanted a sales role overseas. But with limited choice, he regrouped and committed himself. Slowly, he became an expert in lean, six sigma, master black belt and many other operational credentials. He was able to bring to bear all these skills in enhancing the productivity of his team. After four years, including two quick role changes, he was named Operations Manager in charge of an independent ancillary unit delivering 30 per cent annual productivity growth. And just when he was preparing to play an even bigger operational role, he was shortlisted for a sales role in a new geography. He would now work as an understudy to a Global Account Manager handling multiple portfolios and several regions. Once again, he found himself in new territory, needing to learn the tricks of trade. But this time, he had some real understanding of the bigger picture. The dots connected and he could bring to bear the might of enterprise, which is what his CEO often emphasized to his unit heads. Managing relationships, initially in one account and then a portfolio of five big accounts, John transformed himself into a Strategic Client Partner. At this point, he didn’t imagine further change, but the company was undergoing a second major restructuring and the CEO needed someone who could manage his Strategy Office. And so John was assigned to the head office, but this time with much greater responsibility, scope and scale. When he eventually became the next CEO, John realized that his journey had groomed him to manage the biggest paradox of leadership: Conceptualizing the bigger picture while sorting out the operational details.

Experiencing structured exposure and discontinuous shifts will not lead every EA to the CEOs office (or young lieutenants to army command). But if the basic stock of thinking, envisioning and reimagining is present, then most people can probably be groomed to help visionaries manage the paradox of big picture and operational precision.

So let’s get back to Mike’s dilemma. Through reflections, 360 feedback and coaching, he could discover if he is indeed a big picture guy or better suited for details or neither and then can set his navigational compass appropriately. Accepting his strengths and weaknesses would earn him support. But he must look to build an ecosystem of complementarity and make an attempt to manage it efficiently. He must spend time with other thinkers and dreamers, and use those conversations to challenge his assumptions. He must learn to use his own operational expertise and focus on managing a federation that jointly conceives the big picture. Furthermore, considering that Mike is good at strategizing and envisioning the big picture, but is unable to do so due to the lack of adequate operational support, he must take a temporary break from his core orientation and dirty his hands strengthening the operational architecture. But this should be an exception rather than a rule. And in such a scenario, he must pick the gravest challenge, deep dive through to the problem core of with utmost rigor and deal with the underlying cause with utmost precision. He must bring to bear all that he can to resolve the issue and set precedence. And he must groom his team along the way through experiential learning and coaching so that he doesn’t need to step in again. This is the only way of building capability, which will create the architecture of complementarity and excellence. Thereafter, he must motivate the team to replicate the success and refrain from stepping in or he will condition people subconsciously to keep looking at upward delegation as a solution. Unfortunately, many of us get tempted to get into the nitty-gritties of doing things because that appears to be easier and within our comfort zone.

Organizations and leaders should undertake the following to groom people for managing this paradox effectively:

  • Awareness precedes change but insights create action. Rather than leaving it to the self-perception of individuals like Mike, the organizations must use the combination of science and art to figure out his innate comfort zone.
  • Having identified the comfort zone, we must probe the propensity of the ‘Farthest Stretch’ to which an individual can be subjected to. And it is in this zone of discomfort that his development must shape.
  • This overall zone of discomfort must be further segmented into a series of adjacent/contiguous zones within which the limits of elasticity must be established. Prospective candidates must be subjected to frequent and repeated exposure within these segments.
  • Here, the sanctity of segments needs to be protected but the ‘Passage Through’ the segments need not be in a linear fashion. More disruptive it is, the better it is. It implies that an emerging leader can be subjected to discontinuous exposure varying from sales to innovation to operations to marketing but the level should not be discontinuous or else there will not be enough consolidation of learnings before being projected into the next orbit.
  • Alternate stints of ‘Line and Staff’ functions would greatly help people correlate to the big picture and enable them deploy on ground, once they are given the opportunity to do so.
  • Discontinuous shifts between the bird’s eye view and the toil on the ground are mandatory to establish the linkages between imagination and execution.
  • A periodic and contrasting exposure of internal – external view is critical for a well-rounded personality. The external view of markets, customers, emerging technology and consumer behavior enable leaders to spot change and capture new opportunities. The internal view of capabilities, culture and structure helps us assess our appetite for change and overcome the inertia controlling the value delivery architecture that may not be relevant for future.
  • Finally, the significance of a mentor can hardly be overemphasized as evident from the story of CEO mentoring his EA. This clearly highlights the significance of ownership with purpose and rigor.

The world needs more leaders like Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, leaders who can conceive bigger, greater pictures that transform industries and societies while also serving as operational champions. After all, big-picture leaders are only ideally suited to make manifest visions for corporations, institutions and societies if they have experience handling “operational grind” in a variety of contexts. This is the core theme organizations and leaders need to identify, acknowledge and invest in to make a difference in the world.