Tag Archive for dashboard

See the Big Picture

Earlier this month, I shared a post on the importance of using a dashboard to help you keep your eye on the big picture.  That post reminded me of the equal importance of simply being able to see the big picture, which was the subject of a post that I shared about a year and a half ago.  It seemed appropriate to revisit that topic, to help us connect the value of a dashboard with the value of seeing the big picture.

I enjoy puzzles. I enjoy all kinds of puzzles – word puzzles, number puzzles, brain games, etc. – but in this instance I am specifically referring to jigsaw puzzles, the ones that are pictures cut into hundreds of little pieces that need to be assembled. And I have a preferred method of assembly: first turn all of the pieces face-up, setting aside those that have a straight edge (the outside frame); then assemble the outside frame; finally, begin to assemble the rest of the pieces, looking first for pieces that more obviously fit in the same section together. In the process of putting the puzzle together, however, one of the most important components is not the puzzle itself, but rather, the picture on the box.

It is the picture on the box that provides the perspective and the vision of what is being assembled. It provides a visual landscape that helps in determining the general context or place where an individual piece belongs. It’s a map that lets you see where you want to go. I once used the picture on the puzzle box to illustrate a lesson in a class I was teaching, by giving a puzzle to each of several small groups of people. Some of the groups had the puzzle box, so they could see their picture, but some of the groups did not (and some had all the correct pieces, but some had the wrong pieces or were missing pieces; that served to make a different point). Part of the purpose of the lesson was to illustrate the importance of “the big picture,” or the master plan, for managing a process, a task, or life itself.

Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit, by J. R. R. Tolkien, demonstrated the same concept when he and the company of dwarves were traveling through the Mirkwood Forest. As they traveled, the troupe lost sight of the path they needed to follow and became lost, and began to be disoriented. Eventually, Bilbo was sent to climb a tree in order to get above the canopy, and when he did, two things happened: his head cleared, and he could see where they were in relation to where they needed to go (in the movie, he could see the edge of the forest; in the book, he could only see more trees).

Heifetz & Laurie address that idea in a Harvard Business Review article, “The Work of Leadership.”   In the article, they discuss the importance and challenge of adapting behaviors and changes in order to thrive in a new or different environment, and specifically identify six principles for leading adaptive work. The first principle is labeled “Get on the Balcony,” which is explained as follows: “Get on the balcony. Don’t get swept up in the field of play. Instead, move back and forth between the ‘action’ and the ‘balcony.’ You’ll spot emerging patterns, such as power struggles or work avoidance. This high-level perspective helps you mobilize people to do adaptive work” (2011, p. 60). They go on to say that “business leaders have to be able to view patterns as if they were on a balcony. It does them no good to be swept up in the field of action” (p. 60). The emphasis in on the importance of a leader being able to move between the balcony and the field of action, and the necessity of the balcony for providing perspective.

Collins & Hansen also address the idea in Great by Choice (2011), in a chapter that discusses identifying and responding to dangers and changes in the environment. Using the terms “zoom out” and “zoom in,” they point out that effective leaders, “when they sense danger, immediately zoom out to consider how quickly a threat is approaching and whether it calls for a change in plans. Then they zoom in, refocusing their energies into executing objectives” (p. 122). The authors then describe the discipline required to “zoom out for fast yet rigorous decision making and zoom in for fast yet superb execution” (p. 122). The discussion emphasizes the need for effective leaders to be able to step back and zoom out to the big picture in order to recognize and understand the changes and issues in the environment, which then makes them better able to zoom back in and focus on plans, objectives, and details.

The implication is simply this: a good leader needs to be able to see the big picture. Like puzzle pieces, each piece of the context, the environment, the organization, or the situation fits into a larger context, and the leader can best see how it fits when viewing the whole picture. In order to see the whole picture, that leader must be able to get on the balcony, zoom out, and get above the forest to be able to see clearly. Being able to do this will keep him from getting lost among the trees, and will provide the perspective necessary to implement changes and adjustments. Learn to see the big picture.

Collins, J., & Hansen, M. T. (2011). Great by Choice:  Uncertainty, Chaos, and Luck – Why Some Thrive Despite Them All. New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers.

Heifetz, R. A., and Laurie, D. L. (2011). “The Work of Leadership,” in HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Leadership. Harvard Business Review Press: Boston, MA.

Do You Have A Dashboard?

I recently had the privilege of watching the boys’ varsity basketball team at my school compete in the state championship game. The game was in Fort Worth, Texas, about 175 miles from where I live, with numerous small towns along the way. On the drive there and back, I quickly observed that there seemed to be a police car parked discreetly somewhere near the entrance of each town, ready to give a speeding ticket to anyone entering  going too fast. So every time I approached a town, I did the same thing that you would probably do whenever you notice a police car behind you or on the side of the road – I checked my speedometer.

The purpose of your speedometer is to help you know your speed. It doesn’t determine how fast you go, rather it tells you how fast you are going. And it’s not the only instrument on your vehicle’s dashboard: you also have a gas gauge, as well as icons and gauges that keep you informed about tire pressure, engine heat, doors open, seatbelts, temperature inside and outside the car, radio dials, and so on. Your dashboard is an instrument panel designed to provide you with all the pertinent, immediate information regarding your vehicle’s performance and operation.

This same concept has valuable application to your leadership and to your organization. Vern Harnish, in Scaling Up, talks about Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), the numbers that represent the data that serve as the most important indicators of health and performance. WordPress, the platform for my blog, has a section on my administrator’s page that lists my recent and upcoming posts, the most recent comments that need to be addressed, and updates to software and plug-ins. You personally probably have a calendar that you check regularly, a to-do list, and a checkbook or ledger with a constantly changing balance that you monitor. All of these things are versions of a dashboard.

A dashboard is more than simply a helpful tool; it is an incredibly valuable (and necessary) means of monitoring how you and your organization are doing. Like the speedometer in your car or the thermometer at your doctor’s office, it doesn’t set the speed or the temperature, it tells you what they are. It gives you the most critical and basic information that you need to know in order to assess your current performance, get a gauge on your health, and then make the most appropriate decisions based on that information. If you think about it like that, you will realize that your dashboard is key to your decision-making.

Therefore, you need a dashboard. And I don’t think that there is only one way to design a dashboard (just like no two makes of cars have the same dashboard), so you need to create or choose one that works right for you. To do this, start by identifying the most important data that you need to track, the basic or critical information that gives you the best big-picture snapshot of how you are doing. This may be bottom-line budget numbers, time spent on tasks, deadlines, calendar dates, completion rate, performance ratios, or any number of other things that are specifically relevant to your own job and performance, or to your organization’s performance. Then, put all of this data on one page – whether in a spreadsheet, a word document, a useable app, or some other form that works well for you – that you can update at least once a week. Doing this will allow you to keep track of the information you need to see on regular basis, so that you can know how you are doing. It becomes your personal (or organizational) dashboard.

Currently, in my school, I have a dashboard on which I keep track of year-to-date income and expense, and accounts receivable and accounts payable; previous year-to-date comparison of income and expense; current enrollment and re-enrollment numbers and percentages, and previous year-to-date comparison enrollment and re-enrollment numbers and percentages; the current and next months’ calendar of events; and the critical annual tasks that are coming in the next two months. These work well for me because they represent my type of business (a school) and because they give me the information that I need to see in my present circumstances that tell me if we are moving in the right direction.

You don’t need to use the same data, but you do need to figure out what data you need to use. Once you do, put it all together in one place, make it easy to see and easy to track, and check it often. It’s a dashboard. Use it see how you are doing, and so that you can make adjustments when you need to. Imagine not having a speedometer and driving past a police car, with no way of knowing whether or not you are under the speed limit. Operating your organization without a dashboard is the same, because you can’t really tell (at least, not easily) if you are on track, underperforming, or in trouble. Again, it doesn’t matter so much what your dashboard looks like, but it does matter that you have one, and that it has the data that gives you the best big picture.

Your challenge, then, is to ensure that you have a dashboard. Make it personal and relevant, make it something you can easily read and use, then use it. Then, when you come across the “speed traps” that catch others, you’ll be able to make sure you are making the right adjustments to avoid them, all because you are checking your dashboard.