Use Your Zoom Button

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In a recent Harvard Business Review article, Rosabeth Moss Kantor uses the analogy of the zoom button on digital devices to highlight a critical leadership thinking skill. Mastery of this thinking skill also affects the effectiveness of conversations about what actions will move us forward.

“Zoom buttons on digital devices let us examine images from many viewpoints. They also provide an apt metaphor for modes of strategic thinking. Some people prefer to see things up close; others, from afar. Both perspectives – worm’s eye and bird’s eye – have virtues and pathologies. But they should be vantage points, not fixed positions. Leaders need multiple perspectives to get a complete picture. Effective leaders zoom in and zoom out.”

Zooming in gives you a close look at some of the details – often without the context to be able to make sense of the details. Zooming out has the virtue of helping one see the big picture – with the risk of missing the nuance and subtleties in the details.

Kantor makes a compelling case that while we may have a personal preference for either the zoomed in or zoomed out perspective, effective leadership requires flexibility in zooming in and zooming out.

The zooming metaphor has multiple implications and applications, as outlined by Kantor. One of her key points is that without flexibility in moving the zoom in and out people often talk past each other. If the conversation’s partners are “stuck” at different ends of the zoom, they have a hard time really hearing each other and understanding each other’s point of view.

On the other hand, with a flexible zoom lens both partners can move in and out, so developing a more “intelligent” perspective on the situation. This then allows for better decisions about what actions will best move things forward in a positive way. This obviously applies not just to “big” conversations about strategy and tactics, but also to the many everyday “what to do” conversations that make up so much of the workday.

There is an obvious link between the quality of our thinking and the quality of our conversations. We can enhance the quality of our conversations with colleagues by playing the with zoom metaphor. At the same time, playing with the zoom lens in our conversations can also help us develop greater flexibility in zooming.

Here are a few tips to put into practice in your conversations over the next week or so.

  • Ask yourself where your own focus is with regards to the topic of the conversation – zoomed in or zoomed out? What level of detail do your questions point to? What is the level that you’re listening for?
  • Ask yourself where your conversation partner’s focus is – zoomed in or zoomed out? What zoom level are they at as they outline their views? Do their questions take your shared attention in towards the details or out towards the big picture?
  • Ask yourself whether you are talking past each other by being stuck at different ends of the zoom continuum, and ask yourself whether your collective attention around the issue adequately covers the continuum of vantage points.
  • Frame the issue of zooming together as a conversation strategy with your partner. E.g., if you notice you are both zoomed in on the details, say something like: “I notice we’re both focused on the details here. Let’s see what happens when we take a bigger picture perspective.”
  • Questions are a very practical tool to deliberately move yourself and/or your partner to a different zoom level to ensure a more comprehensive view on the issue.
  • Some examples of zoom in question are: What is really going on? What are the facts? What are the critical details? How much information do we have about this situation? What is special about this situation? What are you feeling about this?
  • Some examples of zoom out questions are: What is at stake? What is the long-term view? What is important? What is the real goal? How does this fit into the bigger picture?
  • Pay attention to any new perspectives and possibilities that emerge as you change the vantage point from which you and your conversation partner are viewing the issue.

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