Stepping Back to Move Forward: The Overview Effect


Astronauts in space have described how gazing back at Spaceship Earth has been one of the most powerful, intensely profound experiences that a human being can have. Frank White calls the phenomenon “The Overview Effect”.

The experience of seeing the fragile, blue planet  with a wafer-thin atmosphere from a distance of thousands of kilometers invariably results in a total change in the perspective of the observer. He or she becomes keenly aware that the Earth represents a shared home and a common future. The new and sudden understanding of connectedness of all life is transformational. The observer experiences a new resolve and greater patience in dealing with life’s many challenges, especially those dealing with human conflict. The observer sees problems from an entirely different angle.

Any organization is a microcosm of our big and beautiful planet. Thus, whenever we feel that organizational problems are not getting fixed, we usually think of stepping back and rethinking our understanding of its root causes. We act by creating cross-functional project teams to execute what will hopefully be an integrated solution.

Sadly while many organizations know how to recognize and value specialist skills, the ability to invest in and nurture generalist skills has lagged behind considerably. Reuven Gorsht, writing in Forbes magazine, attributes this to the industrial revolution in the Western economies built upon the division of labor and specialization as the primary tool to increase productivity. Gorsht adds that we have traditionally been trained to view generalists as “jacks of all trades – masters of none.”

Not dissimilar with the astronauts in space, a generalist is someone who has managed to step away from the trees and view the entire forest. He or she is typically someone that has assumed various functional roles in one or more organizations, has participated in many cross-functional (and oftentimes cross-cultural) initiatives, and has trained or worked in different countries.

There is an equivalent overview effect of his experience on the generalist. He is more attuned to how an organization can innovate and create new value. He has a clear understanding of how the many parts make the whole, i.e., how the business model executes on its value proposition. He can connect all the dots, avoid getting caught up in too much detail and instead stay focused on the organizational goal. All organizations need competent generalists who can step back and see to it that the whole gets to move forward.


(Acknowledgments: Earth photograph from Wikipedia is called The Blue Marble taken by the Apollo 17 crew; Business Model Canvas from the post of Francisco Palao called Lean Startups and Entrepreneurship)




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