Here's a humorous story that has floated around the Internet for years:
A large U.S. ship is cruising in the North Atlantic. A blip on its radar reveals what seems to be a ship in its path. The ship's captain exchanges messages with the person responsible for the other vessel:
Captain: "Please change course 15 degrees to the north. Over."
Response: "Change your course 15 degrees to the south. Over."
Captain: "I repeat, change your course 15 degrees! Over!"
Response: "Negative captain, I'm not changing anything!"
Captain: "Sir, this is the U.S.S Montana, the second largest vessel in the North Atlantic fleet. You WILL change course 15 degrees, or I will be forced to take measures to ensure the safety of this ship. OVER!"
Response: "This is a lighthouse, mate. It's your call!"
When a navy captain is given command of a ship, he is told in no uncertain terms that it is his ship (the great majority of captains are still males). He is responsible for whatever happens to the ship, and he has full authority to make all decisions. However, while it is his ship, it's most definitely not his ocean!
Why do some leaders act like this captain, and get trapped in tunnel vision? How can they develop the ability to see the larger picture?
Many leaders find it appealing to focus only on what they can control (or think they can control). It's far more comfortable to do so than to think about those factors that we can't direct, such as what our customers and stakeholders want, how much our funders will give us, and what challenges we'll be facing in the future. Paying attention to the issues at our command gives us a sense of security, albeit a false one. And in a chaotic organizational environment, a little security is welcomed.
But effective leaders understand the importance of seeing the larger picture, of focusing on items that may affect us whether we can control them, influence them or only monitor for them. They know the power of "court vision."
A college basketball coach gave a talk to one of my classes some years ago. He was asked what he looks for when recruiting high-school players. "Court vision is one of the key skills," he said. "What's that?" we asked. "It's the ability to see the whole court, to use peripheral vision in order to anticipate scoring opportunities, and to see what the other team is about to do."
Court vision is equally important for managers and leaders. It helps them spot early indicators that their customers and stakeholders may be upset about something. It gives them insights into the expectations and needs of the 20-somethings entering the workforce. Court vision can also help us think broadly when we're given a big task. Rather than ask, "How am I going to get this done?", we're more likely to ask, "Who else has the skills and expertise to help accomplish this?"
But what if this kind of thinking doesn't come naturally? What if we sometimes succumb to tunnel vision? Here some steps that have helped others:
"Get up on the balcony." This is a term from the fine book Leadership on the Line, by Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky. They urge leaders to periodically leave the "dance floor" (where daily operations occur) and get up on the balcony, where they can better view what's happening. The "balcony" might involve visiting other organizations that have similar functions or it might mean conducting a retreat with your team where you gain some perspective on the unit. Other "balcony" activities include having a long conversation with your manager to learn how your unit fits into the larger scheme of things, or periodically working from home where you have time to think and reflect.
Conduct exit interviews with those leaving your unit. It often amazes me how much street wisdom people carry around in their minds — wisdom that's not usually shared with others unless we ask. However, most people feel free to share their views on an organization when they're getting ready to leave it.
Meet with managers and staff in units that interact with yours. Find out how your work affects them, and vice versa. Find out what pressures and opportunities they're encountering. Ask what you could do to make their work easier/better.
Think carefully about the questions you ask your staff. When someone proposes a new idea for a program or service, ask: Have we (or others) tried that before? If so, how did it work? What might be some unanticipated consequences?
Finally, spend time with others who have good court vision. It's smart to learn from the best. Ask them what steps they take to scan the internal and external environment. Find out what helps them anticipate future trends and challenges, and what keeps them up at night.
The environment surrounding most government agencies today is increasingly complex and turbulent. Court vision can help us make sense out of the chaos. It might even help navy captains avoid confrontations with lighthouses.