What to do when you’re not seeing the forest for the trees?

Lessons from Lewis Carroll & Disney (and my dad)

“When it gets too crowded in your head, write it down.” This is probably my most-used and all time favorite heuristic. I use it all the time. When I feel overwhelmed in a project I’m involved in, when I have to keep the overview of all the stuff that needs to be done when buying your first house (spoiler alert: that’s a lot), when I’m doing non-stop context switching, when I feel like there’s too much I want to say to someone and I just don’t know how, or when I’m preparing for a workshop/talk/session that triggers my imposter syndrome. 

Some context: The Lion King is my all time favorite Disney movie. When it comes to Alice in Wonderland, I like the book way better than the movie. Which might have to do with the fact that my dad used to read this to me over and over again and that I discovered new things and insights every time. I guess that was the parental intention of that as well. 

1. Find a mentor

A mentor to me is not just work related. It is someone who inspires you and drives you to grow. It can be someone who is crazy enough to follow his dreams and sail around the world, or a brilliant manager that not just teaches you the best (inappropriate) phrases, but also gently pushes you out of your comfort zone and makes you feel it was your own idea. Someone who mentors you without ulterior motives; just because they want to see you succeed. Someone who challenges you – to the extent that you want to start throwing stuff at them – in order to help you grow. 

That person can be anyone. I mean, in the Lion King it was a mandrill called Rafiki that was a brilliant mentor for Simba. Take a moment to think about who inspires you, who gives you energy, from whom you want to learn what’s their secret, and most importantly – who you trust completely. And as my dad once said: you’re never too old to have a manager, you’re never done learning and growing. 

2. Communication is all

“If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is, because everything would be what it isn’t. And contrary wise, what is, it wouldn’t be. And what it wouldn’t be, it would. You see?”

Lewis Carroll

You see, right? 😉 The important thing to take from this is that this nonsense would make sense to me, because I created it. We all have that desire to bend the world as we see fit, and thereby creating our own little ‘Wonderlands’. In Alice’s world, cats and rabbits would wear fancy clothes, flowers would talk to her, and everyone would have regular tea parties with a risk to get off with their heads. 

In our Wonderlands, we put Dev and Ops in a room and call it Devops, we design architectures in isolation and expect others to magically understand, support and implement it, and we attend way too many ‘tea parties’ that we call Scrum ceremonies that are supposed to (magically) help us improve. We create a Wonderland that makes sense to us and our little group, but not necessarily to other ‘residents’ in the organization. 

This is one of the reasons a linguistic lover like me will love DDD – the emphasis on a shared language and reality. Maybe our (sub)domains are little Wonderlands, but at least we speak the same language and share a reality. Bonus lesson from my dad: The way you communicate stuff is as important as the content of it. We often focus on content so much, that we forget how we are getting a message or idea across and what the impact on someone might be. Form and content should be equals. 

3. If you don’t know where you’re going, any road can take you there

I vividly remember this chat between Alice and the Cheshire Cat. How can you pick a road to somewhere when you don’t know where you are going? How do you get “there” when you don’t know or don’t care where “there” is? 

What I learned from this personally is that I do better when I have a vision, dreams, ambition and goals to work towards. To decide which road is the best, I need to define ‘there’. The trade-off here is that this need for control also gets in my own way sometimes. It’s not all puppies and sunshine. Whenever I feel like losing control, this (re)defining of my ‘there’ can also result in tunnel vision which doesn’t necessarily help in choosing the best road. 

In my professional projects, I see this happening a lot within organizations; If you don’t know where you’re going as a team, company, person, you will get lost. I see it happening too often; no vision with goals so we just do whatever we feel might work and might bring us ‘there’. (I have ideas about how to counter that, but I will save that for another blog post.)

What I learned from my dad here is that I always should have a plan B. Or a road B. The ‘there’ doesn’t have to change, but the road may. And that – repeat after me – is perfectly ok. (*Repeats it in own head a few times.)

4. Everything looks better from a mountain top

Knocking on an open door, I know. Nevertheless, it’s so easy to get caught up in what you’re doing and not seeing the bigger picture anymore. I’m finding myself in the middle of such a situation and I’m trying very hard to get back on that mountain top. It’s not as easy as it seems. 

So my dad would say that obviously he’s the one who taught me this lesson. Ever since I can remember – he tells me that I need to ‘fly above it like a bird’. <Enter childhood trauma> Whenever I had a test in school and he was rehearsing with me, he closed the books I carefully studied and asked me: “So, what’s this about?” Now I understand that this question forced me to think about the bigger picture and context. Back then I was mainly frustrated that he didn’t ask me about all the details I so diligently studied… 

In my daily work, I use this approach all the time. I ask clients what it is they’re working on, what they are doing and how it fits their context. Sometimes I see the same frustration I know so well when asking these questions. It’s one of the reasons why I’m such a big fan of Big Picture EventStorming; it provides you with an overview of what you’re doing, including a lot of insights that you weren’t (fully) aware of before. Understanding your context is so crucial, and yet not always taken seriously.  

A couple of single trees will eventually form a forest

This blogpost is mainly me therapeutically following up on my own favorite heuristic. Just keeping it on my laptop will feed my sunk cost fallacy, so sharing it anyway. My sunk cost fallacy doesn’t really care if it brings you something, but personally I hope it does. I’m starting to see a couple of trees again, which will form a forest eventually. Too bad patience has never been a key quality of mine… 

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