The story goes, "a group of blind men heard that a strange animal, called an elephant, had been brought to the town, but none of them were aware of its shape and form. So, out of curiosity, they said: "We must inspect and know it by touch, of which we are capable." So, they sought it out, and when they found it, they groped about it. The first person, whose hand landed on the trunk, said, "this being is like a thick snake." For another one whose hand reached its ear, it seemed like a fan. Another person, whose hand was upon its leg, said, "the elephant is a pillar like a tree trunk." The blind man who placed his hand upon its side said, " the elephant is a wall." Another who felt its tail described it as a rope. The last felt its tusk, stated, "the elephant is that which is hard, smooth and like a spear." But this is not the whole story.
The common moral of this parable is that humans have a tendency to view the world through their subjective experience, often forgetting others do the same. While one man might claim the elephant is a snake, given his limited experience with the trunk, another might insist that it is a tree, given his experience with only a leg. Indeed, this is an important lesson in empathy.
However, this short story holds another lesson. The failure of the blind men to see the whole elephant is because they did not take a step back to get the entire picture. The dynamic movement between close inspection and the whole view is key to understanding. It is often said that many cannot "see the forest for the trees." When people are mired in the details, they often forget to ask big picture questions. "Should we be doing this?" "Is this the right approach?" "Why?" Indeed, when deep into a project, most focus only on the details. Seeing the big picture is challenging, and generally, few are capable. Similarly, our cultural definition of a good leader is someone with a vision and whole view for the project or task. There are many soldiers, but only a few generals.
In science, seeing the big picture is not the key. Instead, the dynamic range separates a great scientist from the rest. Some scientists get stuck in the big picture, only focusing on the overarching idea and glossing over the details. Conversely, other scientists will only focus on the details but never step back to see the big picture. The best scientists traverse between these two extremes. Likewise, the best leaders and thinkers have the dynamic range to move between these two states.
Decision-making, problem-solving, and creative thinking have two distinct states: exploratory and evaluative. Exploratory thinking is the idea generation state, while evaluative thinking is the idea selection and prioritization state. Like the scientist who can oscillate between two views, great thinkers also have a broad dynamic range between these two modes of thinking. So the next time you are presented with something you don't understand, moving between the close view and the big picture — having a dynamic range in your thinking — lets you see the whole elephant and understand its parts.