Thursday, May 15, 2008

Trees or Forest

By Alan Gable

Folks can be subdivided in many ways. In my estimation, there are two types of people: tree guy and forest guy. This characterization is based on the metaphor of a forest. Some people focus on individual trees and some people focus on the entire forest. (See Explanation)

Tree Guy - Natural bent toward details and minutia.

The vast majority of your Type A-ers are Tree Guys. They enjoy detail work with numbers and large amounts of data. To them, the most minor process or technique is as important as anything else. They are the valedictorians and the dean's listers. You'll find them in accounting firms, medical schools and anywhere engineers gather.

NASA has a bunch of these guys. As the metaphor goes, tree guys focus in on a single tree (among the others in the forest) and try to perfect or master the tree to the neglect of the forest in general. They do not care about the rest of the forest, and are usually totally overwhelmed by the knowledge that the forest even exists. Tree Guys fixate on certain aspects of the individual tree and hold them up as the most important part of the tree.

Famous Tree Guys:

Al Davis - Owner of the Oakland Raiders - Totally consumed by exceptional individual talent that he never considers how each players affects the entire team.

Colin Powell - I realize the danger in criticizing this man. His Tree Guy-ness made him an outstanding military leader but he never really got the big picture as Secretary of State. It was just too much for him.

Peter - You know, from the Bible. Cephas, time and time again, was hung up on individual issues that he could not get past. "Lord, I'm not going to let them kill you." He never got the big picture; "....it has to be this way..."

Mike Martz - He's been called an offensive genius. Great at drawing up complex offensive schemes with mind-numbing caveats but absolutely dreadful as a head coach. Places a premium on technical precision, even ahead of winning games.

Evangelical Christian Voters - Groups of people can carry these same characteristics. What do Evangelicals vote on? A candidate's overall conservatism or liberalism? No, they vote on abortion and completely ignore every other issue.

Forest Guy - Then we have Forest Guy. Needs to see the big picture to understand the importance of the details and often gets frustrated if he doesn't understand the reasoning behind his tasks.

These guys are C students, but they get their diplomas. They are the small business owners and entrepreneurs. They make good financial advisers and better overall managers than Tree Guys. Following the metaphor, these people like to step back and evaluate the status of the entire forest. Each individual tree is only important for what it tells him about the forest. He can do all things pretty well, but nothing perfectly.

Famous Forest Guys:

Bill Gates - Gates was able to formulate a business model (The Microsoft Model) whereas his cronies could only write binary code. He realized that his overall goal did not need a Harvard degree, so he dropped out.

Winston Churchill - A striking characteristic of Forest Guys is foresight. Churchill saw what Hitler could become long before Hitler himself saw it. He saw the broad landscape of political action and did not get caught up on "peace in our time". To the detriment of the Jewish people, the rest of the Brittains were lost in the trees.

Paul - The Apostle - "Whatever was for my gain, I now count as loss for the sake of Christ..." From the time he met Jesus on his way to Damascus, Paul never lost track of the big picture. Many of his letters are written to encourage Tree Guys to remember the big picture instead of focusing on the trees (circumcision and meat sacrificed to idols). He even confronted Peter a time or two...

Fiction Writers - Novel writers have to see the whole picture before they write the first word. This is much more difficult than it sounds.

I am obviously a forest guy. Which type are you?

1 comment:

Cameron Clark said...

I'd like to think of myself as a forest guy.

I love the game of chess. I think chess, and the ability to excel at it, can easily divide the forest guys and tree guys.

Tree guy takes the rook because it is the move available that makes sense. Forest guy sacrificed the rook to take the king five moves down.

All (good) historians are forest guys. They have to be able to step back and see the big picture of the movement of time and events.

A historian who offers an explanation of an event without proper perspective on the prior history and an holistic painting of the aftermath of said event, likely rendered a skewed (or revisionist) characterization of the event.

If I was ever a tree guy, being an historian beat it out of me.

and Alan, I would have easily pegged you as a tree guy as you were talking about "numbers people." You tend to take the whole picture into account, so maybe you're in the wrong business, brother!

Don't get me wrong, you're good at it, but you'd be an even better executive.