The Layered Big Picture Guides Innovation

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I was consulting at a Fortune 100 company when the Vice President asked if I understood the big picture. He didn’t care about the details needing to be fleshed out. He trusted my expertise to handle those details, but conditionally—if I convinced him that I understood his endgame.

He clarified his view by explaining that he worked at the 50,000-foot level and seldom put his feet on the ground. He hated being involved in the minutia of a project and preferred to leave it to management’s ability that kept the troops in line. Unfortunately, his stance placed a foothold of problems within his organization.

That’s not to say executives need to get their hands dirty, especially since most people hate management looking over their shoulders as they work. However, without a snapshot of understanding from all layers of a project, there is no way for the executive to learn if key players at each level received and understood the project’s true message and vision.

There are two ways of developing a useful big picture. The first is to place a visionary in each department that is capable of translating the executive’s vision into one easily understood by those at the 10,000-foot and ground levels. The second is to have interactive meetings with the executives and managers at each level to clarify the ongoing vision and how it’s being transformed into products and services.

Before deciding which of the two methods, or a combination of methods, is right for the company, we have to understand the importance of each layer. The executive who thinks one layer is more important than another, will not be able to create the type of business growth that can endure. The growth spirts will eventually fizzle with its high turnover due to good employees not wanting to stay in unimportant roles and departments.

I worked for a Fortune 100 company that had 165,000 employees when I started. I was laid-off when the roster dropped to 26,000 employees. The atmosphere suggested that salespeople were gods, computer programmers were heroes, and engineers were a dime a dozen. These hard delineations stopped the flow of knowledge and communications between silos, forcing people to work in isolation.

Sadly, it was the lack of support for the engineers and the total empowerment of the “above the law” salespeople that caused the company’s crash. Within six months, the stock went from $86.00 to $0.50 per share. Few saw the tragedy coming and therefore only a handful of people were able to shift their 401K investments to something more stable. Thousands of people lost their retirement savings.

I also worked for a Fortune 100 start-up division where communication across departments was a weekly exercise. Everyone was considered important to the process including the RFP proposal writers who at some companies are considered the rock bottom on the importance scale.

In this case, the team was highly valued for its ability to wordsmith and customize documents/presentations to meet the criteria that funded deals. The division broke the $100 million mark in the first year, instantly making the new division a company asset and a recognized force in the industry.

The teams that respected the value of other teams, were empowered to try new things and explore solutions never before considered in the marketplace. The VPs participated in all weekly meetings to make sure the new ideas flowed in line with the executive vision for the division.

jacket illustration: © Disney • Pixar

jacket illustration: © Disney • Pixar

Pixar co-founder, Ed Catmull, says, “When it comes to creative inspiration, job titles and hierarchy are meaningless.” He goes on to say in his book Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces that Stand in the Way of True Inspiration that communication should not follow the business hierarchy, but be open to all in order to facilitate progress.

Giving access to everyone, for everyone, allows all employees to own their layer of the vision and empowers the entire company with an understanding of how each area of the business impacts the others. This structure brings insight to those who are capable of innovation based on cross-department combinatory play, which feeds additional innovation.

While I don’t believe in the “open door” policies, which pulls people away from their work in an untimely manner, I strongly believe in access to everyone when it comes to communication and understanding how the vision impacts all project layers and departments. The proper flow of communication and the consideration of other departments when making decisions always empowers innovation.

Therefore, it’s prudent for employees to understand how all departments matter to the vision of the company. With each person having the big picture and understanding each layer of the vision, they will be empowered to innovate, pushing the company to move forward with ideas that will change the marketplace.

© 2019 by CJ Powers

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