The Forest and Trees
Of course you've heard the analogy of the forest and the trees. We all have. We know that if the only thing we pay attention to is the tree in our face, we can never truly know or understand the forest. It's wisdom that is so common as to be meaningless. What you likely don't know is how you can systematically pay attention to both the forest and the tree. It's easy enough in hindsight for someone to show you where you lost perspective and forgot about the big picture, but how do you do that IN THE MOMENT?
In Defense of Obsession
That's a tricky way to think. On the one hand, you should be focusing your attention on your tree. It's your tree after all. Your company or organization would suffer dramatically if you didn't nurture and pour your energy into it. There's good practical reason to be myopic or obsessive about the performance of your unit. You're passionate about what you do. It's a part of what has made you successful and gives you an identity. In fact, you might even owe it to your team members, family or employees to spend your days and nights sweating the little things, making sure that each product your make or service you provide is perfect. There are a lot of people relying on you, and you need to control those small details in order to make sure everyone is successful.
The Case for Forest Thinking
The obvious case for paying attention to the forest is so you can have some perspective about where you fit in. Unfortunately, most of what passes for forest-level thinking in today's organizations involves looking around what other, similar organizations are doing and adopting the practices of anyone who is more successful than us. That's not necessarily a bad idea, but it leads to what we call isomorphism, where every organization in a field starts to look just like one another and there is no true innovation. It's just mimicry.
When we look around at what our competitors are doing, we aren't really paying attention to the forest, we're just paying attention to the other trees around us. That's not forest-level thinking, that's just group think.
This kind of conformity is just fine when everyone is successful, but it leads to a lack of diversity, a loss of opportunity and the real danger that when someone fails, everyone fails.
This is precisely what happened, for example, to the financial industry around 2008 or the U.S. automotive industry in the 1980s, or Hillary Clinton and the Democratic party in the upper-midwest during the 2016 election.
The Danger of Ignoring the Forest
Most of the ink spilled in the analysis of any industry-wide failure like the ones mentioned above focuses on decisions that people could have made differently. But this gets the big picture fundamentally wrong. The big, macro-level things that affect the entire forest are beyond your control. You can't really change them, but they certainly affect you and your organization.
The danger comes when we treat the macro-level forces like micro-level problems-when we try to control forest-level issues instead of respond to them. We fire a pastor because attendance is down without realizing that attendance at churches is down across the country because of a loss of institutional trust and other issues. We create high-risk mortgage products and toxic assets because we see our competitors making a killing in the short run without realizing that the fundamental economic forces of stagnant wages, slow job growth and increasing student debt cannot support those financial products over the long run.
Forest-Thinking in Action
Not long ago I was consulting with a large non-profit about their strategic direction for the next 5-10 years. One of the options on the table was to grow by chasing a few, large donors. Given the recent economic growth in their area this seemed like a viable strategy, and there were a lot of board members and staff who were interested in pursuing this option. In fact, a sister-organization a few towns over had just recently had tremendous success with the same strategy. Indeed, as one board member put it, maybe we should just go and hire their director to work for us.
It was one of the clearest examples of failing to pay attention to the forest that I have ever seen. When they asked me for my input, I gently reminded them that they were unlikely to reach their goals that way. Despite the growth in their region, it remained the case that their town was still relatively poorer than the towns around them. When wealthy people moved into the region, they weren't going to their town, and when locals became wealthy, they were often moving a few towns away. I laid all of this out for them with the relevant data and statistics about average pay, demographics and types of industries in their town.
None of those were things they could control. They can't change the number of young people in their city, the lack of education or the kinds of jobs available. But they could respond to them appropriately. Rather than chasing a few big donors, we set out a strategy of streamlining the workflow for smaller donations so that they wouldn't take up as much staff time to manage. It hasn't been long, but already this strategy is starting to pay off for them in pretty important ways.
How to Pay Attention to the Forest and the Trees
Why You Need to Hire a Sociologist as a Consultant
Sociologists are the people in this world who are charged with paying attention to the forest. We don't study individuals or even single companies or organizations. We study fields in order to identify trends that pervade our culture. That means that while we don't know any single organization as well as the people who run it, we know more about the field because we understand the issues and problems that are facing all organizations.
As an applied sociologist, I'm passionate about helping clients to think more systematically about how to respond to macro-level, forest forces and control the small, micro-level details that affect their business and organizations on a day to day basis.