One of the key issues individuals face as they move into higher levels of responsibility is recognizing the value and importance of holistic thinking. I would define holistic thinking as the ability to see the whole picture and to understand the interdependencies of various component parts.

I think a good analogy is a jigsaw puzzle. A jigsaw puzzle can be overwhelming if you just have a huge jumbled pile of pieces and try to put them together with no frame of reference or guidance. My daughter loved doing puzzles when she was younger, and from watching her, I’ve learned a few principles that help the puzzle come together faster:

  • Keep the overall goal in front of you (like a picture of the completed puzzle), and review it often.
  • Frame up the borders of the puzzle, by finding the corners and all the straight edge pieces and put those together first.
  • Find patterns by grouping similar puzzle pieces together, such as specific colors which provide a hint they must be connected in some way.

These principles also apply to holistic thinking in a business context:

  1. Know your overall objective. Holistic thinkers constantly remind themselves of their primary objective, or what specific result they are driving towards, which helps them to focus and not get distracted by every tangential concern or issue. Rather, by thinking holistically, bumps in the road are viewed more as learning opportunities and minor setbacks rather than insurmountable challenges. This applies at the individual level as well. When leaders I coach receive formal multi-rater feedback, they can get distracted by a single comment or rating rather than staying focused on the overall goal of development and core messages that will drive that development.
  1. Correctly frame the problem/challenge. Michael Watkins, a professor at IMD has stated: “Many managers are promoted to senior levels on the strength of their ability to fix problems. When they become enterprise leaders, however, they must focus less on solving problems and more on defining which problems the organization should be tackling.” (emphasis added, Harvard Business Review, June 2012). In the U.S. we have a strong bias for action – we often hear that “doing something is better than nothing”, so we see a problem and dive in to fix it. While this may sometimes be helpful, we can also waste precious resources and cause huge headaches by trying to work on something that was only a symptom of a larger underlying issue. Holistic thinkers have the willingness and patience to step back and ask “what problem are we trying to solve?” I recall working with a non-profit client who stated that they wanted “more community support”. However, every person in the room had a different idea of what “community support” meant. These differences then led to a very useful conversation about “what is community support?” Only after they clarified this issue could they then make progress.
  1. Learn to recognize patterns. Just as similar color puzzle pieces are likely to interconnect in specific ways, so are people, processes and systems likely to affect one another in certain ways that can be predicted once patterns are identified and understood. Rather than treating every issue that pops up as a “one off” situation, holistic thinkers have the ability to see the interdependencies, resulting patterns, and the implications of those patterns on the overall objective. For example, if we want to improve employee retention, holistic thinkers should seek for patterns not only in the circumstances of those who have left the organization, but also patterns in those who have stayed and flourished in the organization.

Unfortunately, most organizations have too many independent thinkers and far too few holistic (or interdependent) thinkers. If you want to increase your capacity to think holistically, resist the urge to tackle the obvious surface-level issues—instead, dig deeper for the underlying patterns. This approach can help ensure you’re working on the right problem and staying focused on your primary goals.