During the heart of winter, when the polar vortex swoops down with temperatures that even my dog finds uncomfortable, my wife and I assemble puzzles. The act of assembling a puzzle is a simple example of the need to balance a system view with a more detailed perspective. Getting work done efficiently and effectively requires both perspectives in some sort of balance.
The process we use for assembling a puzzle begins with opening the box, spilling the contents on a handy table and then propping up the lid so we can reference the big picture. I once had a conversation in a hotel bar with a person who told me that he thought using the picture as a reference was cheating. A little probing suggested that starting puzzles might have been more his actual goal than completing them, due to the time it took to discover the picture. In our process, by contrast, I use completion of the puzzle as the goal and the picture on the cover of the box acts as the high-level requirements. However, as anyone that has ever assembled a puzzle will tell you, to achieve your goal you still need to fit all of those little pieces together. Whether the puzzle you are working on has 100, 500 or 1000 pieces you will have to shift from focusing on the big picture to focusing on the details to find the right fit. The information from both perspectives is essential to fully understand what is required to get from the start of the system to the end of the system in an effective and efficient manner.
Reflecting back to my conversation about puzzles in the hotel bar, by eschewing the big picture, the systems thinking view, my neighbor might have been able to complete the puzzle, but not in the most efficient manner. Meanwhile, a single-minded focus on the big picture, as pointed out in Gene Hughson’s comments to Systems Thinking: Difficulties can cause the equality serious problem of analysis paralysis. Spinning down into greater or greater levels of detailed analysis means a team is delaying its ability to deliver business value. Gene was interviewed for the Software Process and Measurement Cast 268 providing great insights into Agile architecture, software development and management.
In the end, both perspectives are needed to get the job done. Finding the balance between the macro- (systems thinking) and micro-focus is a process in its own right. The balance changes over the life of any project or even iteration. As a team shifts from conceptualizing to developing what is to be done they naturally shift from the big picture to the detailed view. Product owners face a similar journey between the big picture and the detail, however they need to own the goal and the picture on the puzzle’s lid. As a coach, the scrum master needs to make sure the whole team remembers the overall goal and big picture. Systems thinking helps us to understand that nothing happens in a vacuum. Developing an understanding of how we transform inputs into value is critical. However in order to deliver that value, just having the big picture understanding is not sufficient. In order to actually execute, we need to have a handle on the detail also.