Wednesday morning on Twitter legendary film critic Robert Ebert tweeted, “What’s so special about the big picture? Why not focus on the small picture?” I followed the link to a poetic blog entry (not written by Ebert) that questioned the importance of concentrating on the “big picture” and extolled the virtues of the “small picture,” with its tiny details that, as the author says, show her everything she needs to know.
The blog had nothing to do with business, but I kept thinking about it all day. Every day entrepreneurs are advised to look at the big picture. I confess I too am guilty of dispensing this advice. In my defense, telling people to look at the big picture is not necessarily bad advice. There are many times and situations in which an entrepreneur needs to take a macro view of his or her company. Because most small businesses run lean, so many of their parts are interdependent and looking at the big picture is the only way to understand what’s going on.
But if you spend all your time examining the big picture, it’s very likely you’re overlooking the small stuff. I know that “don’t sweat the small stuff” has become a mantra for many. (The book Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff sold millions of copies and spawned an entire series of books about things you shouldn’t be sweating about.) But if no one is watching the little things, they can all too quickly turn into big things – and then it might be too late to do anything about them.
The blogger was right. If your day is spent looking at the big picture, you’re bound to overlook the details — and to use another cliche, “the devil is in the details.” In order for you to move your business forward, you need to immerse yourself in the minutiae. If you sell clothes, you need to know that your blue sweaters outsell the green ones three to one. Of course, restaurant owners need to know what foods people like (and dislike), but they also need to be aware if a waiter is rude or the oven is on the fritz.
Is your local newspaper having trouble retaining readers? You might think this has nothing to do with you, but if you own a local brick-and-mortar business, knowing the paper is struggling with circulation is going to help you make a more intelligent ad-buying decision.
How many times have you heard that a small business owner must wear many hats? Unfortunately, it’s true, and in this case two of those hats are looking at the big picture and sweating the small stuff … all at the same time. How do we do that? There are many answers to that question. For me, one solution (which I don’t recommend) is getting less sleep. Perhaps a smarter solution would be to delegate more, to truly discern the tasks you must be involved with and those you can assign to trusted employees, consultants, or independent contractors. Delegation doesn’t absolve you of your overall responsibility, so you need to decide what amount of information you’re comfortable not knowing.
Or perhaps you can learn to juggle? Schedule a monthly or weekly “big picture” day when you and your top people look at overall trends, the state of the economy, and other macro factors. Then spend the rest of the month applying what you’ve learned to the small stuff that every business depends upon to survive. For instance, if the macro view tells you more and more Americans are concerned with green issues and sustainability, you then need to take a micro approach to how your business can address them.
Another solution is to figure out which type of person you are and what you’re best at, then hire or partner with another person or company that can do what you can’t. I have admitted before to not being a details person; if “stickies” had never been invented, I’d be a complete mess. Fortunately, my partners are good at minding the details and we’ve managed to find a good balance as a team.
The first step is to really understand what drives you and your business. This will take some amount of introspection, but once you know and accept your strengths and weaknesses, it will be easier to come up with solutions to grow your company. After many months I have finally figured out that while it’s not always possible to stay there, I prefer to dwell in the land of the big picture. Now it’s your turn.
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