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Big picture vs detail – three lessons

I was suddenly struck at a meeting last week that I was missing something significant.  I was thinking about the issue – commissioning, as it happens – from a very general perspective while the professionals round the table were thinking of specifics (such as the commissioning of mental health services for children).  It was a bit of a shock.  But just as I was missing significant things, I suspected that so were they.

It’s not that I’m unaware of this issue of perspectives. I tend to take a big picture, strategic, abstract, rather theoretical view of things.  I’m generally conscious of the problems it can cause, such as the difficulty in getting my views across to other people, so if I can, (and remember) I try to bring in the more concrete perspective.  But as this example shows, I can totally forget.  What the experience did do, though, was make me reflect on the pros and cons of the different perspectives and what we can do to get the best of both.

Of course you need both and you need to be able to move between them with facility.  Indeed, moving between them is the basis of a number of creativity techniques.  However, I’d got stuck in one.

On the face of it, the distinction between the two is simple and the need for both clear.  However, as my experience demonstrated, it is easy to forget that.

But it is not just a question of both being good and two being better than one.  Each perspective also has problems and the other perspective is needed not just to add to it, but to compensate for those problems.  So what is good about each, what are the problems and how can we compensate for them?

Big picture good

The big picture, by abstracting, simplifying and missing out details, lets you manage complexity, scale and longer timeframes.  It’s a way of dealing with the limitations of our brains to deal with too much information.

The broader view can help make sense of a complicated landscape.  For instance, Health and Wellbeing Boards can find issues thrown at them seemingly randomly from all directions – the Better Care Fund, domestic violence, the local safeguarding children’s board, end of life care, SEND, the mental health crisis concordat, alignment of commissioning plans, dementia (and then it’s criticised for missing something).  All are important, but space on agendas is limited and it’s easy to feel you may be missing the bigger picture – not being strategic.  Starting from a broader perspective can help.  It’s all too easy to ask what we’ve got for the current agenda (what has been submitted by officers) rather than what ought we to be focussing on.

The big picture perspective can also make it easier to conceive of completely different ways of doing things.  Because you are thinking in general terms, you don’t have to get all the details right.  And you don’t have to worry about the practicalities of how you get from here to there.  It can help jump the tramlines that a current service is on (if jumping tramlines is actually a good idea).

Big picture bad

However the model used to simplify may not be right.  It could hide significant differences within the specifics.  In fact it can’t be exactly right because it is by definition partial.  This is more likely if it is driven by ideology.

Worse than that, the big picture view may be simply wrong.  Things seem feasible and attractive in the abstract but may be impossible in reality.  I seem to remember Daniel Dennett giving the example (in the wonderful ‘Consciousness Explained’ of building a ladder to the moon.  We can imagine it, so assume it is possible ‘in principle’, but actually it can’t be done.

There’s also an issue of implementing ideas.  In social matters, because of their complexity, you can’t usually be sure of what’s going to happen until you try it out.  Sometimes what sounds like common sense turns out not to work.  So taking the big picture analysis and translating it into a blueprint over a long timescale could cause all sorts of problems.  In those circumstances the best approach may be to have a general sense of direction, but to experiment and revise frequently.

Detail good

Thinking about specific examples means your thinking and any prescriptions are more likely to be accurate.

You can also use examples to develop new ideas and ways of thinking.  Examples of co-production can be quite inspiring and suggest this as a way forward in many other areas.  However, in extending the idea, each new example needs to be implemented and worked through in its own way.

Detail bad

The detailed perspective risks missing out the wider context and issues that could affect specifics.  There is a risk of ignoring things which are outside the narrow world you are considering – things which are actually there (such as the international economic situation) or which could be (a new way of meeting the needs the service is there to provide).

There is a risk of assuming things change linearly when you look at one service over a relatively short period.  So you set a target for a 3.2% increase, rather than imagining what kind of snowball effect you could get from concerted action by a range of partners

For instance, the Five Year Forward View has ambitious aims for reducing costs through better prevention of ill health.  But that’s not going to happen if we just carry on doing what we’re currently doing.  There are lots of great public health initiatives but the big picture view shows we need to go beyond that.

If there are separate workstreams on things like obesity, physical activity, mental health, older people, it is easy to miss the links between them (older people’s walking groups could benefit all four).  Or there can be a focus on a narrow range of services – the commissioning of weight management courses, talks in schools – missing out the role of planning, highways and environment on how easy it is to walk and cycle, or the role of the public themselves and how they can be supported in finding new ways to address the problems.


So what lessons can we draw from all of this?

  1.  The first and most obvious one is simply to remember the difference (particularly if you are prone to one of the other) and to regularly move up and down the levels of abstraction-detail in your thinking.
  2. Secondly, help keep both perspectives alive in debate. For example when it all seems very theoretical, ask for examples; or if it’s too detailed, ask how specific examples fit into the bigger picture (‘that’s a good example of co-production, could we use that thinking in other areas and how does it fit with our broader strategy?’)
  3. The third thing is to ensure both perspectives are reflected in planning.  Ensure all strategies have some form of action plan and ensure all detailed plans sit within the context of a broader strategy.

Sorry if that all seems a bit general and theoretical – it’s just that, you know, I find it hard home in on specifics.

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