You can’t see the forest for the trees! It’s a widely known saying that is accepted by many as truth whether they are talking about issues in the workplace or about life in general. It means that we sometimes cannot see situations as they really are while we are in the midst of them. In short, we lose our perspective when we are too heavily invested in a particular situation, approach, organization, etc.
I know from personal experience that this saying is true and it stirs up some emotional memories whenever I hear it. This happens because I was once lost in a forest as a child. Now, my story is not really that dramatic, but it was dramatic for a young boy of nine who wandered off on a summer, day-camp field trip to explore a nearby grove of trees and found himself lost in a forest. It may have only been for a few hours, but, when you are lost and nine years old in a forest that is getting dark, a few hours seem like a lifetime.
When I wandered off to explore a group of trees in the distance from the camp site, I, at first, enjoyed the freedom I gained. I would soon feel differently as I unwisely kept walking further away from the group and into the trees. While there, I enjoyed exploring the creeks, hiking over rocks, and climbing over fallen trees. Everything was fine until I realized that I had been gone for awhile. My feeling of freedom turned to concern when I realized after some time that I was lost.
With each new attempt to find my way out of the forest, I was sure that I had found the right path to lead me back to the camp site. I quickly learned that I wanted to get out of that forest so badly that I was convincing myself that I was on the right path. In reality, I was just going in circles as I was seeing what I wanted to see—a way out of the forest.
Eventually, I accepted the truth. I was really lost as I was coming back to the same place where there was a large boulder and a fallen tree that rested over a creek. As I looked up at the top of the trees from the bottom of the forest, it looked and felt like a large space to explore without a door to get out. My concern turned to panic when I realized that it was getting dark and the bus home would be leaving in awhile.
I started to fear the worst. I thought I would be eaten by some wild animal or be forever lost, never to see my family again. (Remember, I was nine years old.) I eventually found a side exit out of the forest. As I ran as fast as I could to find my way back to the camp site, I remember looking back after awhile at the forest and it looked completely different to me.
Instead of being a large space to explore, I saw the top of the trees and a large forest that went on for miles it seemed. This large forest of trees now looked like a closed, impenetrable space. As I made my way back to the site, I realized that the trees where I had entered was the beginning of a large forest. After being lost for some time, I had found a side exit out of it. As I looked back, I remember I thought to myself: No wonder I got lost!
In business and in life, we sometimes cannot see the forest for the trees. Sometimes, to the detriment of ourselves and others, we can be too heavily invested in our way of doing things (an organization, strategy, philosophy, leadership style, management approach, group of people, etc). When we are, we cannot see the forest for the trees. We no longer see the bigger picture and we lose our perspective. Whether it is our own inability to admit we were wrong, our honest but naive loyalty, or our strong sense of perseverance, the result is the same. We lose sight of the big picture, and we escalate our commitment to following a path that is leading us in circles instead of moving us forward.
We can only see the forest when we get out of the trees! Blind allegiance to something that is flawed, no matter what the reason, keeps us going in circles.
Albert Einstein had it right:
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Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.