“You’re always saying how important it is to see the forest and the trees,” read the email from a guy I mentor. He’s a high-performing high potential whose career is at the inflection point between lower and middle management.

I like this guy because whenever he doesn’t get something, he asks. He’s not so committed to looking smart that he misses opportunities for actually getting smarter. He asks questions so he can keep progressing.

His email continued: “But how do you see the forest? What should I be looking at besides the particular tree I’m responsible for? My boss expects me to know everything about my team’s work, and to get a million things done. I’m already in too many meetings. Are you saying I also have to spend time on stuff that isn’t mine?”

Well, yes. Even if you only ever want to do a beautiful job in your current function, your work takes place in the midst of other people’s and other departments’ work. Very few of us can operate completely independently.

Prepare for Forces Beyond Your Control

managerial-walk-in-woodsIt’s crucial to be aware of outside influences that affect what you need to do and how you need to do it. Figure out what could go wrong. Test your assumptions. And make contingency plans: What will you do if things don’t work out well, or turn out better than you can handle?

An effective internal test is to explore the logical conclusions of what might happen next. Subsequent events always come along, so almost everything you plan is, in effect, an interim solution.

Be a good forest watcher: Get quiet, pay attention, and take note of details, patterns, and trends.

Check for Organizational Currents

Are there problems upstream that might affect your work or your people? Can you plan around them, or get better cooperation so they don’t occur? Have you assessed your internal or external customers’ downstream needs to ensure that your work is timely and relevant to them, not just to your work group?

Scan Internal and External Environments

If you spot a potential complication with another work group or individual, recognize that other people have purposes and goals, just like you do. Some will be similar to yours, and some won’t, but all of them could affect you, your people, or your project — now or in the future.

Try this mental checklist:

  • What long-term implications — not just immediate results — can you expect?
  • What time horizon are you considering, and what happens if it shifts?
  • What are the implications of internal organizational structures, silos, and information flows?
  • Are there any dependencies that you rely on for resources, information, etc., or any that rely on you?
  • How healthy are your current workforce norms, and what situations could strengthen or weaken them?
  • What are the expectations of your senior executives, your best customers, and other crucial constituencies and influencers?
  • Are there changes afoot in external market, regulatory, or environmental forces?
  • What cautionary tales or lessons from history can you apply to the current situation?

Find a New Way of Walking

Take into account which potential impacts are the result of structural obstacles that require a concerted effort on behalf of the larger organization. Then, identify which are essentially interpersonal issues that you can shift via your own influence, smarts, empathy, and relationship-building.

At first, you’ll have to step carefully through each of these considerations, but with practice, it’ll become second nature. Eventually, you’ll notice which colleagues see only their own trees or act like forest animals hunkering down in their burrows, and which senior leaders don’t bother knowing anything about trees. But that’s a whole other walk in the woods…