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The Big-Picture Thinking

Karen Christensen

IN 1994, JEFF BEZOS was working in finance in New York City. The Internet was just emerging, but it was growing at an incredible rate of over 2,300 per cent per year. He had an epiphany: e-commerce was the future. Bezos did some research and discovered that books were among the most popular retail items. So he packed up, moved to Seattle, and launched Amazon out of his garage. His vision: to become the world’s largest online bookstore. Critics scoffed, but Bezos saw how some critical puzzle pieces fit together: the rise of the Internet, growing computer ownership, and the simplicity of online book selling. This bigpicture thinking has made him one of the most successful entrepreneurs of our time.

Most of the cutting-edge innovations we enjoy today are the result of big-picture thinking, which can be defined as ‘the ability to take a wide-angle view of any situation or initiative’ — to zoom out and see how things are interconnected. And this is an increasingly important capability for leaders. Rather than getting stuck ‘in the weeds,’ big-picture thinkers can imagine the far-reaching implications of a particular project or decision.

Cultivating this mindset takes practice, but half the battle is ensuring you maintain a keen understanding of today’s hotbutton issues — which range from risks and opportunities around environmental, social and governance (ESG) and diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), to emerging technologies like general purpose AI and the decentralized finance (DeFi) landscape. All are driving change across industries.

In this issue, we will present some of the knowledge and tools required to see and understand the big picture. Rotman Associate Professor Richard Powers and his co-authors of ESG Risk: What’s on Your Radar? say the time has come for executives to collaborate with stakeholders to identify, assess and report on their ESG risks — and to start managing them as part of their daily operations.

In Generative AI: What Leaders Need to Know, Accenture’s Krish Banerjee explains that over the next decade, AI ‘foundation models’ will transform the nature of knowledge sharing within organizations. Rotman Professor Walid Hejazi and the School’s Associate Director of Global and Experiential Learning Freeda Khan argue that cultural intelligence (CQ) is the most overlooked ingredient for global business success, in Cultural Intelligence: The Skill of the Century.

Elsewhere in this issue, we talk to Wharton Professor Mauro Guillén about ‘the Age of the Perrennial’ in our Thought Leader Interview; Rotman PhD Candidate Edna Lopez Avila and Assistant Professor of Finance Charles Martineau show that when it comes to investing, crowds are not always wise; and two Rotman alumni — Victor Tung (MBA ’12) and Charley Butler (MBA ’20) — show how to become an agent for positive change.

Big-picture thinkers can help their organizations respond to events before they become crises. They can also help them embrace new opportunities while continuing to operate with principles that build sustainable enterprises for the long run. Of course, organizations need more than big-picture thinking to thrive. They also need people at the other end of the spectrum — detail-oriented thinkers who can ensure precision, accuracy and an ability to pivot as needed.

As with so many things in life, it’s all about achieving a balance. In a complex world, organizations need multiple perspectives to get a complete picture. And as a result, the most effective leadership teams are able to zoom in and zoom out. 


The name Karen signed in cursive
Karen Christensen, Editor in Chief

Twitter: @RotmanMgmtMag

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