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Looking Beyond the Trees

A very dear friend of mine is fond of referring to a saying that has many iterations, but goes something like this: ”You’d notice the forest if you weren’t so busy looking at the trees.” I think this friend first provided this advice to me while I was conducting graduate research when the primary intention was encouraging me to take a step back and consider the "big picture" of what was occurring. 

Too often, whether in academia or in a professional setting, we all may at least occasionally feel a tendency to focus on the specific details that are most immediately soliciting our attention rather than the systemic causes and the greater circumstances in which those details exist. This has real implications for technical support and managing IT departments.

An unavoidable necessity of providing IT support is responding to the technical issues that arise on a recurring basis. These issues may require extensive troubleshooting or may be simple cases of directing people toward the appropriate resources, but these types of issues comprise what we can consider the “trees” in the example above. If your IT staff is not big enough for the volume of users you support, you may find the daily grind of responding to tickets and troubleshooting tickets is all any of your time has time for each day. If your staff is large enough or autonomous enough to at least include some individuals who can find the time and energy to focus on the systemic causes of those recurring support tickets, then we can start to get a sense of what it looks like to consider the “forest.”

The approach of responding to issues as they are reported and not venturing much farther beyond  than what is immediate is essentially "reactive" in persuasion whereas the approach that brings about the most sustainable and effective IT environment would be “proactive” or “preventive.” If at least some of us can spend time strategizing, we begin to shift focus away from the everyday routine and more towards creating a better everyday environment that is prone to less issues for everyone involved. That strategizing does happen best with the feedback of users, but it inherently requires someone to connect the dots between the way users utilize or wish to utilize technology and the most frequent recurring technical issues.

In order to become a more effective organization and to grow, this type of strategizing must take place at least on some level. Any cases in our environment where the teams providing the support cannot find the time to look beyond the technical issues or dig themselves out of the steady stream of tickets they are receiving most likely could benefit from some reorganization. If we find ourselves focusing on the trees, particularly in an IT support scenario, the next question to ask ourselves would be the following: "Why are we not able to focus on the forest?" If the answer is not enough time exists in the day to provide that support, then a mismatch exists in terms of the support we should be providing and the support we are able to provide.

We've touched a lot on limited resources requiring us to focus more on the trees in the preceding, but other reasons may exist to notice or consider the forest. The most significant of these has more to do with life than professional organization or IT settings: We focus on the trees because they're comprised of the immediate concerns that are right in front of us and cannot be overlooked. In a sense, the trees are most important in the short term whereas considerations and discussing concerning the forest will improve our long-term processes ultimately allowing us to accomplish and be prepared more than we would otherwise.

All that is to say that we cannot forget about the short-term and shift all of our focus toward long-term strategy. We must do both simultaneously: we grow as an organization by improving tomorrow while taking care of today's problems. Most organizations deal with this problem by developing hierarchies or distributed labor management in the interest of allowing some team members to focus more on the immediate concerns of everyday while others analyze processes and plan for the future. The opposite can also be quite effective with the right team: a decentralized, autonomous, and diversified team with the decision-making power to both plan for the future and respond to immediate concerns while prioritizing based on importance and urgency.

 I've worked in both kinds of organizations and both can work very well if the necessary planning and organization is done in response to the particular strengths of the team involved and the environment being supported. To plan effectively, we must consider both the forest and trees of our team before we determine how best to ensure we're considering both the forest and trees of our environments. If we can do this, we get beyond today and pave the way toward a better tomorrow.