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Change Work June 2007

Don't bother me with the details!

The ability to see the "big picture" is often regarded as a sign of intellectual superiority - especially by people who can see it!  And it's not surprising that managers and leaders who deal successfully with big issues are able to "chunk up", i.e. to follow a chain of thinking that gets wider and wider.

Those who always burrow deeper and deeper into the detail, ignoring the big picture, may be regarded as inferior thinkers compared with their big-thinking colleagues - or more likely their organisational superiors.

I don't believe that there's any fundamental difference between people who tend to think in bigger "chunks" and people who tend to "chunk down".  Just like the towards/away motivational states that I discussed a couple of months ago, this is another example of a meta-program or thinking style.

We can all "do" both types of thinking but we tend to prefer one or the other. This causes us automatically to chunk up or chunk down as revealed in the questions we ask:

"How does this fit into the plan we've been following?" is a chunking up question.

"How does this affect the way I report my work?" takes you down to a particular detail.

You can also chunk sideways, e.g.  "What is similar to this?"

It's very useful to develop an awareness of your own and others' preferences and to practise up, down and sideways chunking.  If someone's preference is different from yours, then matching theirs for a while is one strategy for building rapport with them.

When conflicts arise, it can help things to deliberately chunk up in order to find common ground.  So, for example, you might think we should buy cheaper copier paper and I might think that would give our customers a poor impression of us.  A mediator would ask you, "What would cheaper paper get for us?" and then ask me, "What would a good customer impression get for us?"  The answers might be "cost savings" and "more sales", respectively.  One more step takes us both to "more profit" and then we can both address that common goal, moving away from our area of conflict.

This sequence is also a key part of several techniques for resolving inner conflict, i.e. when you, as an individual, want two things that seem to be mutually exclusive.

A common example is "career" versus "family".  You want to get on at work but also to spend more time on family activities.  A useful metaphor here is to imagine that different parts of you want these things.  Then you can step into each part in turn and chunk up, asking, "What does this get for me?" until you reach a level that the parts agree on.

So, this might go:  "career" gets me "money" gets me "freedom" gets me "fulfilment" and "family time" gets me "sense of belonging" gets me "comfort" gets me "fulfilment". 

Recognising that both of the conflicting parts ultimately want the same thing opens the door to co-existence, because whichever of the two you're pursuing at any moment, you're always moving towards the common goal. You still have to accommodate both in your life but it doesn't feel like a conflict any longer.

Yet another way of using chunking is in creative problem-solving. Faced with a problem, you can chunk up to a higher level, then sideways to another class at that level then down to specific solutions, some of which might be relevant to your problem.  This is effectively a procedure for lateral thinking that follows a logical path.

Example: How can I influence my team to use company systems more diligently?  This is an example of influencing to change behaviour.  That's like advertising. So I can look at advertising techniques and maybe find some innovative ways of attacking my problem. Up - sideways - down.

The generic questions that move your thinking up, down or sideways are:

Chunking Up - What is this an example of?  E.g. "car" is an example of "transport"

Chunking Down - What is an example of this? E.g. an example of "car" is "Volvo" (or "saloon", or "convertible", or "red")

Chunking Sideways - What is this similar to?  E.g. "car" is similar to "van".  (They are both examples of the same larger class.)

So, do you habitually chunk up or chunk down?  Notice what your colleagues tend to do and see if this correlates with how well you get on with them or how often you disagree with them.  Then have a go at chunking the opposite way to your preference.  You can practise by making up sequences like the ones above - it certainly stretched me to think of examples that didn't just chunk down!