Principle #20 – Zoom Out often

I am watching the first episode of the final series of Peaky Blinders. Early in opening episode an Irish actress appears. I know her. I know her face; I recognise her accent; I’m familiar with her mannerisms and I even know other characters in other series she’s played before. But, for the life of me, I can’t remember her name. I’m getting frustrated, annoyed – so I try harder to remember. The harder I try, the more elusive the name becomes. I realise from experience that I’m wasting my time. So I pause the episode, distract myself by thinking about something else, get up from the screen and go make a cup of tea. I return some ten minutes later, un-pause and re-engage. Miraculously it seems, her name suddenly comes to me. Charlene McKenna. Studies conducted by Benjamin Baird at the University of California discovered we are 41% more effective and more creative when we step away for a time – or Zoom Out – than if we hang in there pitching ever harder at the problem. This is true with any dilemma ranging from actress name recall to business strategy to “what do I do with my life?”. I can still clearly recall when I first started my business, the reluctance I had to take time for a holiday, or any time off. I also equally clearly recall my first ever 3 week holiday, and marvelling at the level of clarity that Zooming Out brought with it. I remember returning fully energised, focused, clear and decisive.

We know that some of our greatest scientific discoveries have been discovered in Zooming Out. The well-established Archimedes Eureka moment in the bath, and Newton’s apple falling from a tree in his garden whilst on a forced sabbatical, are backed by many breakthrough moments routinely reported by scientists whilst removed away from the problem. In short, we often do our best thinking when we are not thinking. Leaders need to spend more time on the balcony, and less on the dance-floor.

Yet there is stiff resistance. One common feature of leaders I’ve encountered over the last quarter century is a marked reluctance to step away and take a break. There are some very understandable reasons for this. The first is that there is a natural rhythm to the daily routine, which is in a peculiar way, soothing, where we become routinised. This pattern, once created, is hard to break. The second reason is that leaders typically believe they are indispensable. Thirdly, Zooming Out demands a conscious decision to schedule time independent of urgent tasks and to then defend that time. In short it requires discipline, a commodity in short supply with many leaders. And the final, perhaps most practical reason, is that any busy executive could easily spend all day every day working on their To-Do list and still never get to the end of it. By contrast there are no immediate rewards or consequences attached to the act of Zooming Out.

Think of Zooming as a camera on a landscape. If you zoom in on the landscape, imagine you find at the top of the hill a house. By zooming in, you’ll be able to examine a lot of the detail of that house. When you zoom out, you sacrifice the detail of the house, but what you get instead is the broader or wider context of the surrounding landscape – with its beautiful view or the local amenities or maybe that local neighbours planning application you otherwise wouldn’t see. It’s the nature of our lives that we spend the vast majority of it zoomed in. Zoomed In seems to be our factory setting. In spite of this however, it is a primary responsibility of the leader to continually zoom out. If you are not Zooming Out and taking the wider perspective then who is? And what are the consequences of remaining Zoomed In? Drucker’s assertion that leadership is about the Right Things is based on the notion of perspective. Zooming Out changes and expands our perspective which is essential in deciding our direction and priorities. How can you determine the Right Things if your perspective is limited. We need that wide perspective for the good of our enterprise and to help it navigate its way. We can’t do that without having the wider context and zooming out to see the bigger picture.

This is true of our team, our enterprise, our life and our planet. In light of the dark events in Ukraine, it is chillingly worthwhile to revisit the thoughts of Carl Sagan on the photograph taken by Voyager 1 in 1990 from a record 6 billion kilometres distance from our planet. Perhaps the most literal (and timely) example of Zooming Out, in the picture Earth’s apparent size is less than a pixel; the planet appears as a tiny dot against the vastness of space, among bands of sunlight reflected by the camera. Hence the title “Pale Blue Dot”. In his book of the same name Sagan describes the following:

“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there–on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbour life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”