Keeping the ‘big picture’ in the picture

By Bob McGannon, PMP, GWCPM, MPC

Perspective is an underestimated asset in the armory of a successful project practitioner. Too often project personnel, particularly project managers, but also business analysts, get too bogged down in the detail of their projects. They start to focus at an inappropriately low level and fail to regularly pull themselves out of ‘the weeds’ to focus on the big picture from a helicopter view of their project and its implications for the business as a whole.

The question is: is there an easy way to assess whether or not you have taken ‘too deep a dive’ into the weeds? And if a project manager does find that they are too deep in the weeds, how do they work their way back to keeping the ‘big picture’ in the picture?

High vs. low level perspectives It is a project manager’s job to lead the team and provide the perspective. Their primary reason for being is to separate the ‘what we’re going to do’ from the ‘how we’re going to do it’. It is not the fact that ‘we need an Excel spreadsheet’, it is that ‘we need to get some information and to process this information to help us do this business better’.

By ‘in the weeds’ we mean that a project manager is spending day to day with the people who are building the solution, keeping track of their progress and/or participating in solution building tasks at the sacrifice of watching the big picture. They may know that the solution is coming together well, however they may have forgotten to do the appropriate cost management to keep the financial controller in the company funding the project. Their project will be irrelevant if they do not get the funding to finish it.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s not like a project manager shouldn’t ever enter ‘the weeds’. In fact, there are times when they need to validate that they’re building the desired solution, particularly if they’re dealing with vendors, as opposed to the solution they feel is needed. However, they should always make sure this is aligned with the business.

To do this it is vital to keep the big picture in the picture by taking a high level or helicopter view of the project. By standing above the detail project managers can see the nature of where the people and the organization are in synch and when they are not. Unless they are specifically expected to own technical tasks on the project, if they are spending more than 20% of their time ‘in the weeds’, they run the risk of watching the speedometer on their car and knowing exactly how fast they are going while they drive the car right into a tree!

It is predominately the high level view with short, periodic dives into ‘the weeds’, or at least views to ‘the weeds’, that is for the most part the best way to balance the perspectives. However, there are times when vendors or project sub-teams do not play well together. Then the project manager has to go into the detail. They have to get the people engaged in the project to understand each other and play on the same field. This is the best way to mitigate risk in a project. However, the project manager must then remember to pull him or herself out of the detail and get back into the helicopter.

The fact is project managers cannot go three weeks without doing an overall status meeting because they are too busy working ‘in the weeds’ with various vendors. It is like having a child who complains that they have a bruise on their hand. The adult looks at the child’s hand and, well, it looks like they’re bruising. But in actual fact they are actually turning blue all over their body because they are not breathing! And the same happens on projects: project managers have got to look at the whole thing once in a while or the whole thing could go to red status in a hurry.

A problem we come across regularly is the project manager who has a technical background in a certain area. They often like getting involved in the things that they know well: we refer to this as their ‘go home to mama’ approach. The project manager may in fact start to write code or develop a spreadsheet report or build the processes for a specific outcome, or whatever the case may be. Yet in doing this they lose perspective of the fact that there may be five different business areas that are going to use their solution and each of these areas may have five different purposes for the project.

The gauge to performing the balancing act successfully is having a good healthy view to what risks are happening in the project or what could go wrong. If the project manager has the right balance of high and low level perspectives they should be able to run into a senior leader or sponsor in the hallway, be asked a strategic, operational or tactical question and know the answer, or at least know how to get it very quickly.

A question of courage In Mindavation’s Intelligent Disobedience course ( training-courses/project-management-courses/intelligent-disobedience-class/), we talk about the fact that sometimes project personnel need to be a hurdle instead of breaking down hurdles. To maintain the right mix of perspective project managers have to ask the tough questions of the stakeholders involved. They have to have the courage to revisit the business case when they know that the current direction of the project is going to change that business case. It is all about challenging the stakeholders who are pushing a different agenda.

The reality of human nature is that people are either top down thinkers or bottom up thinkers. However, they can learn how to come at things from a different point of view (Mindavation’s Critical Judgement course offers this training:http:// Often it comes down to not being afraid to ask the ‘Why?’ questions. To have the fortitude to be able to go to two different senior leaders and say, “I think you’re on a different page and here’s why I think that. And we need to resolve this.” If a project manager is ‘in the weeds’ too much they will have NO chance of having the perspective to overcome the hurdle when needed.

It is helpful to think of projects like physics and waves in a pool. When a wave is started in the pool it goes across and hits the walls and it comes back and it alters something else. If a project manager is not watching how the waves alter something else they can have a flow going in a direction and they do not know where it is heading. As project managers it is their duty to have the courage to challenge and question the things that swirl around their projects, both from the perspective of the detail (in the weeds) and the bigger picture (from the helicopter). After all, it is certainly in the realm of possibility that what a sponsor or senior leader wanted six months ago when the project started is not what they want now. Developing a balanced perspective is a matter of understanding that this is not a static world.

Bob McGannon is a Founder and Principal of MINDAVATION, a company providing project management training and consulting, leadership workshops and team building programs throughout North America, Australia and Europe. Bob and the Mindavation team can be reached by calling 1-866-888-MIND (6463) in the US, by sending an email or via the website at

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