Keeping in Step with the Big Picture

“Focus on the forest rather than the detail of any one tree.”
“Take the 10,000 meter view.”
“See the big picture.”

Girl looking across a landscapeThese common phrases suggest the value of appreciating the whole versus an emphasis on the detail of parts of a situation or a system of interest.  Systems thinkers are active in appreciating the large view and use tools and strategies to see the big picture.

Have you ever watched a marching band perform during halftime of a football game? 
Marching band formation of a U.S. flag

By FUMO7887, Wikimedia Commons

The goal of the performing group is to play music and create patterns that spell out words and formations designed for spectators’ entertainment.  Each band member plays an important role as the formation moves and changes throughout the performance.

The view from the stands is a big picture view, where spectators interpret the formation the band members’ movements create.  Spectators with a big picture view easily notice irregularities when performers are not quite in line or in step with the group.  This big picture view provides information that may not be noticeable by performers down on the field.


Marching band on field
By Krista Mericle, Public Domain

Band members have a very different view while performing.  While marching, musicians pay attention to surrounding members, the markings on the field and the conductor.  They do not have the advantage of seeing firsthand the big picture because they have to pay attention to the details of their surroundings.  They have to imagine the formations they create that are best appreciated by a broader perspective.

Like a marching band performance, spectators observing a system can be in the best positions to see the behavior of the system as a whole.  Those physically situated within the system can have limited views.  When we are in the trenches and active as members of systems, our decisions, actions and contributions greatly influence the whole, but we rarely have a chance to appreciate the wider view.  

UT/Rice Football Game Panorama
By Dave Wilson from Austin, Texas, USA
[CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Systems thinkers take time to take on the role of spectator.  They change perspectives by stepping back to increase understanding of a system. For example, when school leaders bring together students, teachers, parents, administrators and community members to share perspectives and points of view about school environment and student success and achievement, all in the system are able to “sit in the stands together” and appreciate the big picture. 

A Tool for Seeing the Big Picture: The Iceberg

Iceberg visualThe Iceberg visual of systems thinking is a great tool to help a group of people see the big picture of a system of interest. As people come together using the iceberg to share their views (mental models*), reflect on patterns and trends and examine the structure of the system, they increase their understanding of the system.  This deeper understanding of the system increases the group’s ability to plan and implement high leverage actions in the future. 

Filipino and Indonesian educators analyze their education systems using the iceberg.
Filipino and Indonesian educators analyze their education systems using the iceberg.

In addition, when used as an instructional strategy in classrooms, the iceberg tool helps students gain a deeper understanding of systems they are studying.

See elementary student example

See middle school example.

To learn more about the iceberg click here, and to gain access to a wide variety of iceberg templates, click here.

* Mental models are deeply ingrained assumptions, generalizations, or even pictures or images that influence how we understand the world and how we take action.  
Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline, 1990


Big Picture Reflections

Reflection in lakeConsider your workplace, your school or classroom, or your life with friends and family.  Can you think of times when you were “in the stands” and truly had a big picture view of a circumstance or event?  Did this view provide you with a perspective that broadened your view or enabled you to see something differently than if you’d been “in the band?” When you see things differently, how do you react? How can tools like the iceberg help you gain understanding of the big picture and the contributing details of your system?



Welcome to Systems thINK!

Just like naming a new baby, naming a blog was no easy task.  Blog-naming experts encouraged us to be clever, to consider name searchability and to settle on titles that are short and concise.  After days of trading ideas, we settled on the term “systems” which is near and dear to our hearts, and dissected the word “think” to highlight the importance of “ink, “ to blogging, or putting pen to paper and fingertips to keys.  After checking through Google to make sure the name was truly unique, a new blog was finally born!!

This blog is a team effort that highlights the writing of a variety of thought leaders focused on the integration of systems thinking habits, concepts and tools in schools and in communities.  We hope to make it fun and participatory by encouraging responses and replies that will open up a welcoming space for thoughtful inklings and insights.