Too many accountants use the phrase “big picture” as if everyone understands what they’re talking about. It took me about a year to fully grasp the concept because the idea is contextual and the phrase “big picture” is too esoteric to be understood by someone with very little practical experience. So I used to do a lot of smiling and nodding when partners started ruminating on it.
Our coop student – part 1
I was heading to my desk the other day and I saw our coop going through a personal tax file. I like to make small talk with him because he does a lot of bitch work around the office – i.e filling, shredding paper, formatting hard disks. I figure anyone who’s stuck with this stuff can use a distraction now and then. I said what’s up and asked how the filing was going. He said it was going alright and he knew what he was doing, but the files themselves made no sense to him. “Like, what is this stuff? It’s all out of order.” I tried to explain that the processing sheet at the front was a kind of make-shift table of contents. He smiled at me, but I could tell he had no clue what I was saying. I just told him to keep up the good work and kept on walking to my desk.
What is the big picture?
“The big picture” is an overall impression of something. And it’s uncovered through the interaction of many components that deliberately work together while reinforcing each other. It’s like how the color scheme, allegory and symbolism in the The Watchmen all work together to cultivate the dismal reality of New York in 1985.
David Gibbons used secondary colors – oranges, greens, purples – because they’re muted and less impressive and a lot more dull than standard comic book colors such as reds blues and yellows.
A small kid reads a tragic comic throughout the whole story, which turns out to be an allegory for the main villain. Who’s ultimate evil act is so understandingly necessary that it only heightens how awful things have gotten for everyone.
And as both of these techniques become clearer you’re constantly being bombarded by uncomfortable imagery that gives you a feeling of dread.
It doesn’t matter if you’re creating a story or an audit file. The point is the big picture can’t survive without these things because it’s built on them. And the “big picture”, or overall impression, will vary for each project because the things that support it will always be and work together differently.
Know what it’s going to look like
I never read comic books. The Watchmen is the first comic book err “Graphic Novel” I’ve ever read. And I only picked it up because I thought the movie might not get released. But I’m glad I read it because it really shows the value of having a good outline or a very clear vision of what you want something to look like. There’s no way it could have been that good if David Gibbons or Alan Moore lacked a crystal clear vision of what they wanted to accomplish. It’s just not possible – which really shows the value of vision or having an outline before you start.
It doesn’t matter if you’re trying to write an a paper, a speech (pg 4.) or build an audit file. You have to know what the thing is supposed to look like at the end. The clearer that vision is the better the final result will be. There’s no refuting this.
Going from big to small and back again (go to the 4:50 mark)
Once you have the vision and the structure the only thing left is the work. Don’t screw this part up because it makes all the preparation useless. This part just comes down to knowing what you’re doing – so I’ll skip it assuming people can just pick up a handbook. The video below is more important.
Jeff makes a bunch of little balls with his finger tips, zooms out a bit, makes more balls, zooms out again and so on. Imagine the balls as techniques like in The Watchmen, the relation of the balls at different zooms as the outlines described above and the final chain of balls as the big picture. Can you see how fast he goes back and forth between big and small with the touch of his fingers? If you understand the big picture of a file then going from a specific number or audit procedure to the financial statements as a whole is a joke because you can see the entire thing at once. You can’t understand that “big picture” without knowing the parts that support and reinforce it. So once you can see it as a whole, you can go back and forth just as fast as Jeff does or even faster.
Our coop student – part 2
I went back to my desk and patted myself on the back for a job well done. But I thought about it and he did have a good point. The file didn’t make sense to him. He didn’t understand the big picture. He didn’t know what the file was supposed to look like or its structure, so he couldn’t make any sense of it as he flipped through it.
Realizing all this I got up and re-explained the file to him in the context I outlined above. His eyes still looked a bit glazed over, but I wasn’t expecting him to have an epiphany on the spot. At the very least I hope he remembers some of what I said so the next time a partner tells him to look at the big picture he’ll have more options besides smiling and nodding.