When working with teams I often use this black cat analogy to illustrate the difference between how people think and communicate based on the level of detail that they like to sit in.
I’ll introduce the concept with something like…. “If I was to point to something and ask a person who thinks in a lot of detail what it is, they might say. “It’s a beautiful, black cat. It has a shiny coat, with short fur. It has green eyes and a pink tongue. It walks with grace and likes to eat tuna and spends most of it’s time sitting in the sun. Its owners are Jim and Penny and they spend each night playing with him with his favourite mouse toy that has the tassels. Each night he sleeps at the end of Jim and Penny’s bed… (and it might go on… and on…. and sometimes on -you get my point hopefully).
I then contrast this response to a big picture thinker’s whose response is likely to be… “It’s an animal.”
If you put these two polar opposite thinkers in the same room and they are not aware that there are substantial differences in the way that they experience and view detail in the world, then there is likely to be conflict and confusion between them. Conflict because they can’t get on the same page, and confusion because the way that they communicate can be so different they might as well be talking different languages.
How does this little analogy have relevance to planning?
I have, on more than one occasion challenged a big picture thinker to tell me the specific steps that they are going to take to achieve an (in my opinion) impossible target. Usually, their eyes glaze over, they shift uncomfortably in their chair and then start making a beeline towards the door! They don’t like being in the minutia. This isn’t where their brain likes to play, and it actually drains their energy.
Similarly, I’ll challenge a detail thinker to explain to me the outcome or to define the purpose of what they are doing day to day. They often end up with a nauseated look on their face as the pit of their stomach hardens. This isn’t where their brain likes to play, and it also drains their energy.
BUT, what if they knew this about each other? What if they used this knowledge to leverage each other’s skills to plan? What could happen???
The big picture thinker could think in exactly that frame and could spend their time scoping out the major 12 month, 3 year, 5 year and 10 year vision of the business. They could give a lofty idea of the broader objectives and then pass that information to the detail thinker. The detail thinker could work with them to develop the plan and the detailed activities that needed to be taken to achieve those objectives.
This is what could happen. However, most of the time these two are sitting on such different planets in terms of how they experience the world that they struggle to find a way to utilise each other’s strengths. So how do you get two people with such different perspectives to leverage each other?
You learn to build a bridge between them, by searching for and understanding the middle ground.
Let’s return to my cat analogy. In terms of improving communications, I’ll go on to explain how to learn to bridge between the two thinkers. I’ll say something like… “my goal is to teach you both how to communicate with each other by starting in the middle. The detail thinker learns how to chunk their thoughts up to be more abstract and able to say, “It’s a black cat” and the big picture thinker likewise learns how to chunk down into detail so that they say “It’s a black cat”. From there, both parties know they are looking at the same, black cat.”
This concept can be applied to communications and planning alike.
Let’s say there is a scale of creating a plan and it goes from step 1 to step 10. Step 1 is the big overarching idea, the purpose and vision (“the animal”), and 10 is the intricate daily activities that need to be done to achieve the idea (“the beautiful black cat with shiny coat” etc etc). The key to successfully leveraging the key strengths in your team and to create a robust, achievable plan is to have the big picture thinker be able to detail the plan from step 1 to step 5. with step 5 representing the black cat. Then the detailed thinker can see that they are looking at a black cat and plan from step 6 to step 10 to define the full plan.
This is, in my opinion, the gold nugget in terms of leveraging the strengths within your team. This is not to say that a big picture thinker can’t get into the detail, nor likewise a detail person be able to think in a visionary way. It’s about leveraging your teams to get the best outcome. No one is perfect at doing everything all the time. BUT if you can identify both your own and your team’s key strengths and utilise those strengths then, I believe, you’re a true leader. This leverage creates energy and opportunity as you work collaboratively with everyone to identify the best ideas. This way of planning helps with greater effectiveness in ensuring that you are communicating and delivering a robust workable plan to achieve your business goals.
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Are you a big picture thinker or a detail oriented guy? Perhaps you might even be the person who sits in the middle and can translate between the two. Have you leveraged others to strengthen your own plans? Get in touch.
Tags: Business Leadership Strategy teamwork