Home Concepts Managing Stress & Challenges Bringing the Overview Effect Down to Earth

Bringing the Overview Effect Down to Earth

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Distinction One: Knowing vs. Experiencing

The astronauts did not come to “know” something new when they saw the Earth as a planet moving through the universe at a high rate of speed. We, and they, already “knew” that, but they experienced it.  As the first American in space, Alan Shepard, put it:

I had been well briefed on what to expect…But no one could be briefed well enough to be completely prepared for the astonishing view that I got. (6)

Most organizational behavior is driven by what people think they know, what they already like or dislike, what they’re attracted to and what they avoid. It’s important for us to be “right” about what we know and it’s threatening to have that called into question. This tendency accounts for the stultifying effects of left/right politics and “sides.” As one of the authors of this paper (White) is fond of pointing out, however, “A planet has no sides.”

A lack of “overview thinking” makes fundamental change a threat to identity. A merger becomes an attack on personal survival for leaders and administrators who have identified themselves with one company, and with policies and practices, that already exist.  By contrast, space exploration is a grand experiment. It’s in the nature of an experiment to discover what new things might take place.

Distinction Two: Earth vs. Space

The astronauts experienced the reality that the distinction between Earth and space is a false one. The Earth is in space, has always been in space, and will always be in space. All of us are crewmembers on Spaceship Earth, but we don’t behave in that way because we don’t have the context to do so. And the astronauts not only saw the Earth from space but also in space. (7) In the words of shuttle astronaut Jeff Hoffman, speaking at the world premiere of the film, “Overview” about the view he had from orbit:

You do, from that perspective, see the Earth as a planet. You see the sun  as a star. You are seeing it from a cosmic perspective.  (8)

The transformation from an organization with segmented goals, dissociated policies, and limiting relationships among the parts cannot happen without altering the meaning that people give to their experience, moving from the limits of their individual identities as a point of view to a holistic view of themselves and the system as occurs in seeing the Earth from space.

Most efforts to change or improve a system involve changing structure or process, which does not change mindset or context.  It simply changes the form. The personal meaning people give to their experiences is a function of the context, their point of view, which is emotionally driven.

The new perspective made visible by the Overview Effect comes from just such a change in context. When this change is deliberately put into practice in companies and schools in service of high performance, there is a surge of human energy and cooperative results.

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