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Why you need to think small to accomplish glorious plans a.k.a. The micro-macro mindset

Why is it, that some of the most intelligent people you know are not getting ahead in life much, while you can recite half a dozen (or more!) people you’ve seen on social media, TV, or even in your circle of friends that seem to do things without a plan and for all the wrong reasons - and they are fairly (or even wildly) successful?

Why is it, that YOU often have a very good understanding of the current situation and the pitfalls that lie ahead? But while you are acting with caution, keeping the long-term in mind, others around you seem to just ignore the obvious dead ends - but still, somehow make progress and sometimes even overtake you.

And why does this seem to happen in different areas of your life ranging from business to hobbies?

Well, at least the last question is easy to answer: You experience this all over the place because it is caused on a structural level.

The good news is: It’s not fate. This… thing, that seems like a handicap can be described clearly. There is a fundamental concept for this: introducing orders of magnitude to the evaluation process when assessing progress. By establishing a sense of scale, it is not only possible but completely straightforward to overcome the challenge of getting lost while judging the success of the detailed matters at hand. Especially the matters that have outcomes that can only be measured over time.

Imagine for a second, that you could view what’s right in front of you from a perspective that makes complex decisions simple because it makes it easy to see what makes sense to do right now, and what clearly will lead you off course.

Imagine that you had the ability to overlook the many details of what lies ahead and easily identify, which of the many courses of action to choose and execute. Even more, you’d wonder how you couldn’t see it before.

Sounds like you need a prophet on your team.

Let’s take a step back and look at an example that illustrates the principle that is at work here: Our beloved planet earth.

Why the next ice age is upon us

This may come as a surprise to you, but global warming is, in fact, not happening. Yes, a large number of today’s scientists are claiming, that our planet will overheat. But in actuality, it is cooling down. If this sounds controversial, that’s only because I went all smart-ass and deliberately used a different scale than the one you probably intuitively applied when thinking about global temperature changes.

In fact, ever since our planet was formed a few billion years ago, it has been a big splash of lava floating through space, continuously cooling down. And it continues to do so because the earth’s core is radiating heat out into space. We’re too far from the sun for it to have any significant effect on this cooling process. That is if we examine the cooldown on a scale of millions of years.

Now, of course, that’s not what most people refer to when they discuss global warming. Most people would argue, that our atmosphere is, in fact, heating up. And they are right. Because they describe the process in the context of a scale of decades and centuries.

There are also people who claim that man-made global warming is not happening. Their reasoning is very similar to the molten-rock one above, except they turn it on its head. They deliberately zoom into a handful of specific details and evaluate changes on a small scale, while purposefully ignoring the bigger picture. Such a line of argument may be that “you can clearly observe that there is no global warming because three weeks ago there was a blizzard in X, and the temperatures were the lowest in recorded history”, or something along those lines. What they may be right about is, that for a specific geographic location they selected, the effects of global warming are not showing up when looking at a few isolated points of data.

While you may question the point of the entire discussion by now, understanding this line of argument will prove useful for making decisions. Let’s look at how this principle can help you in business.

How a salary cut can accelerate your career

Of course, we could go all spiritual here and opt for a “less money means more happiness” speech, but that’s not the point. What’s important is, that human beings are surprisingly bad at connecting dots that are… unconnected. How this relates to having a successful career? For most people, the size of their salary is the ultimate KPI for how to measure their professional success. It is very closely followed by the headcount that they are responsible for. When people switch roles, they rarely accept being responsible for a smaller headcount. And when they switch employers, they virtually never accept having a lower salary. What’s mostly being ignored is, that there is a concept physicists like to call “time”. The idea behind it is, that as time passes, things change. This may sound obvious at first glance. But most people, when deciding whether to take a job offer, commonly ignore this concept. So they will turn down new roles and new jobs because to them, it means “taking a step back” - regardless of how the variable of time may impact that “step back” once it is evaluated over a 6-month, 12-month or 24-month period.

When looking at successful careers of people that are progressing quickly, they are often shaped by alternating cycles of building a foundation in an area that is tried and true, followed by diving into a new topic, role, or venture, in which lots of opportunity may be found, at the cost of some uncertainty. And naturally, venturing into a new area will mean taking a step back in terms of available resources, because the majority of the resources will remain allocated on what’s already working solidly. However, while the downside of remaining in the existing venture is limited, so is this option’s upside.

Allocating resources to new, promising, but uncertain opportunities could be referred to as “doing innovation”. On an abstract level, people tend to agree, that innovation is a necessity to be successful in the greater scheme of things. And they also agree, that a solid path for innovation is to move into new areas, even if the resources allocated to this area are limited. However, when people are deciding on an individual level, for themselves and their careers, they tend to disregard this and almost always opt against innovation. In other words, they opt for staying in their role and avoiding venturing too far into other topics and skills because it goes along with having fewer resources than are currently allocated to them (in plain English: the new position comes with a lower salary).

Why you keep self-destructing

This illustrates a fundamental inability of human thinking when it comes to evaluating matters over time. This inability applies everywhere but is most easily identified when things are quantifiable. For example in business, when outcomes can be measured in terms of salary, or in climate research in terms of temperature. But it’s in no way limited to these areas.

We can go super basic and look at people’s health. There’s a plethora of fitness apps, nutritionists, and self-proclaimed gurus that are giving advice from “eat meat only” to “eat neither meat nor animal products”. For decades, science has been swinging back and forth between “eat many small meals per day” and “eat a lot in a small window of a few hours per day”, a.k.a. interval fasting. Another example: fat has been a controversial point of nutritional discussion for decades. The common scientific sense was ranging from “eat no fats at all” to “avoiding eating fats is harmful”.

What makes it so difficult to evaluate what makes sense when it comes to nutrition? The answer is simple: The scale on which you can evaluate the effects of nutrition is very limited.

The truth is: No one knows, which specific actions are healthy when evaluated on a larger time scale, such as a decade or a lifetime. On a scale of a day or a week, you can clearly measure that some foods have effects that are suspected to be unhealthy if endured over long periods of time. Eat sugar, and your blood sugar will surely spike, followed by a sharp decline. Eat sugar multiple times per day and the repeated rises and falls of the blood sugar levels are under general suspicion to cause diabetes. Long-term studies are trying to connect the dots between these short-term negative effects to prove that they are also harmful in the long run. But connecting the dots in a way to receive a definite answer is really difficult. An infamous example of this is the tobacco industry, that for half a century denied the negative effects of smoking on people’s health.

By the same token, it’s impossible to measure whether an apple has any long-term positive effect on your health or if doing twenty push-ups increases your longevity. You can measure a few indicators such as resting pulse after a workout, and the effect of vitamin C on cells and organisms. But these are all highly local effects.

Of course, there are some strong indicators that allow us to make educated guesses on what a healthy lifestyle looks like. And everyone knows how to do it: Eat lots of fruit and veggies, leave out sugar and salt wherever you can, avoid fast food and work out regularly. It’s that simple. But still, most people prefer to keep sweets in their diet. Because eating some sweets just today isn’t going to do any harm, right?

Scale for the win

All of this begs the question: How can we overcome this fundamental human inability to evaluate matters properly over time?

The answer is simple: By introducing scale.

All examples above have one thing in common: There’s an obfuscation between the micro and the macro scale. On the macro, we all agree on what will keep us healthy. But in the micro, a cheeseburger today doesn’t kill you. In the micro, a few soft drinks don’t put weight on your hips this week. And by the same token, in the micro, an apple doesn’t instantly make you more healthy and a few push-ups don’t let your muscles grow. But, in all likelihood, they will help you to remain more healthy on the macro scale. Years from today.

The concept of being able to discern between the micro and the macro scale is an incredibly powerful framework that can help resolve a vast array of arguments. And it instantly gives you the ability to take better decisions because it explains and connects seemingly unconnected phenomena.

Snow storms and harsh winters can (obviously) occur when continental effects cause local cooldowns while the atmospheric climate of the planet is heating up over decades or centuries. And this can, in turn, happen while the planet, being a big rock-covered splash of lava in space, is cooling down over millions and billions of years. Just like in a car you may have a nice cool stream of air right in front of the A/C while the people in the back are melting away.

By the same token, a role that you have less experience in will imply less responsibility and a decrease in salary for a time. But on a scale of a couple of years, the additional expertise you gain in that new role can make you more likely to be chosen for a higher management role that requires being able to deeply understand multiple departments.

Wherever you apply the concept of micro- and macro scale, once you start intentionally zooming out of the details and applying a macro perspective, you’ll see many challenges in a completely new light. And you’ll see an entirely new set of paths for how to overcome the issues you face in the micro.

Speed in execution vs thoroughness in planning

Not being able to switch between the micro- and the macro perspective will often result in short-term success. This is because, quite simply, action is being taken and things are getting done. However, there are two common dead ends:

First, if something does not go according to plan, you will see chaos breaking out immediately. This is because of the inability of people to grasp the bigger picture behind these unexpected developments. What follows, are planless and reactive… reactions.

Second, results that are being created without a bigger plan often result in unmanaged complexity. This, in turn, makes shortcuts more and more attractive. In practice, one example you can often find is a forest of Excel sheets complemented by software tools that are somehow used, by someone, but only for a handful of the features they actually offer. However, regardless of how unmanaged complexity expresses itself, it always makes it more difficult to operate and creates more complexity in and by itself.

A good example of this is growing teams or businesses that hit a glass ceiling when they reach a size of 20-30 people. At this point, setting the right structures requires a macro perspective of how the team or organization may operate once it has 70-100 people. With this perspective, these structures can be laid out for the 20-30 people, so that the team can grow while maintaining efficient operations.

Balancing your mindset between micro speed and macro patience

Thinking and planning on a large scale are key to achieving large-scale results. But planning on a large scale often leads people to be impatient on that same large scale. And this subsequently leads to mistakes in micro-scale decisions that lead to macro-scale failure. Like, for example, avoiding a role that seems like a setback in the micro but is a great step in the macro. Like an investment in improving the organizational structure of a company. It seems like tedious work with little outcome in the micro but is an enabler to grow in the macro.

The mental challenge with planning on the macro scale is, that your direct influence is typically limited to matters on the micro-scale. On the macro, you can only observe how the conglomerate of your micro-decisions play out over time while you and the organization are executing on those decisions.

One approach for translating your macro decisions into micro execution is, to first plan on the macro scale, then secondly to set milestones for achieving this plan, and thirdly to set specific goals and plan the according activities to achieve the next, upcoming milestone. After that, deliberately and entirely focusing on the execution towards those goals is all you can do. And it’s all happening in the micro.

Fail fast and fail often, but avoid failing big

They say: “Fail fast and early”. And they say: “Speed over everything”. Both are partially true. What they mean to say is: “Fail fast and fail in the micro” and “Keep the macro in mind, but don’t get stuck in it”.

On the macro scale, it makes tremendous sense to have an overall plan for fighting global warming, staying healthy, for building organizations and businesses, and for your career. However, macro plans are typically laid out on a high level that doesn’t immediately translate into a specific set of instructions for the micro. And the micro is, where executing the macro plans is happening. Success in the macro is composed of making micro decisions quickly and executing these decisions even faster. This is what drives actual progress and creates the results that accumulate and form success in the macro. This is why it is completely acceptable to fail in the micro. One fail, and even a series of failures that are being dealt with in time, will not harm the macro progress. This applies to climate, health, and career advancements alike.

Micro-Macro in Leadership

For leaders, having the ability to switch between micro and macro is critical. Because as a leader of the organization, you have exactly two responsibilities: First, set and steer the course of the organization. Second, enable people to execute what’s required to stay on the course you have set.

For setting the appropriate course, you need to evaluate matters on the macro scale in order to draw the appropriate conclusions. However, the cause of macro circumstances is usually rooted in micro developments. Being part of both sides of the conversation is key.

In order to successfully lead people, you need to be able to put them in the right roles and teach them the right skills and mindset. This is all happening in the micro. At the same time, it’s your job to give them a sense of purpose. This means providing a macro perspective and includes, but is not limited to, providing them with a vision.

What is important to realize as a leader is, that since hardly anyone has the same macro perspective as you do, no one can make decisions on the same scale and no one can shape the vision and allocate resources with the same foresight. Be cautious, though. This doesn’t mean that you are irreplaceable and it also doesn’t mean you are right in your assumptions. It simply implies that your vision and your course are grounded in your specific perspective. So, when other people make decisions on your behalf, they will occasionally base them on a slightly different perspective and get to different conclusions. And that’s fine. Because it’s all micro. What’s important is, that if one of those decisions causes a share of your resources to go too far off course, then, and only then, you’ll have to overrule the decision. Still, since it took place in the micro, this will not veer you off course in the macro.

The conclusion?

By ignoring the macro perspective you can easily outrun someone in the micro. But, you also maximize the chances that you’re running in the wrong direction and end up at a dead end.

By the same token, if you get stuck in macro planning and can’t transition into micro execution, you end up not getting anything done at all.

Learning on what scale to think on is an integral part of learning how to properly focus your energy and efforts and how to allocate the right amount of resources to the right initiatives.


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