Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s
Zoom In / Zoom Out Metaphor

“The zoom framework offers a dynamic model that can help current and aspiring leaders increase their own range of vision and establish conditions that enable others’ success,” argues Rosabeth Moss Kanter in a new article.

In the March issue of Harvard Business Review, the Harvard Business School professor writes that:

The lens through which leaders view the world can help or hinder their ability to make good strategic decisions, especially during crises. Zoom in, and get a close look at select details — perhaps too close to make sense of them. Zoom out, and see the big picture — but perhaps miss some subtleties and nuances.

Zoom buttons on digital devices let us examine images from many viewpoints. They also provide an apt metaphor for modes of strategic thinking. Some people prefer to see things up close, others from afar. Both perspectives — worm’s-eye and bird’s-eye — have virtues and pathologies. But they should be vantage points, not fixed positions. Leaders need multiple perspectives to get a complete picture. Effective leaders zoom in and zoom out.

Kanter's examples in “Managing Yourself: Zoom In, Zoom Out” include former BP CEO Tony Hayward, whose “zoom button seemed to be stuck on the closest setting” while dealing with the deaths of 11 people and the biggest oil spill in U.S. history. “Even though BP deployed thousands of engineers to contain the spill, he could not, in public, rise above a 10-foot view; it was as though the crisis were his own personal devil.”

On the flip side, Kanter commends Indra Noovi, PepsiCo’s CEO, for being able to blend “a big-picture view of principles guiding the company” with “an ability to zoom in on the details of budget allocations for current business lines.” Kanter also lauds The Procter & Gamble Company:

Effective leaders encourage others to expand their zooming range. For example, P&G, like most companies in the consumer packaged goods industry, is a heavy user of large-sample survey market research, which maps territories through statistical abstractions, a form of zooming out. Though P&G’s leaders don’t disregard these data, they also send employees into the field to live with families, zooming in on their needs and experiences. The closely observed details of individual household behaviors ultimately influence P&G’s investment decisions.

The P&G example may be familiar to MIT Sloan Management Review readers from Kanter’s piece from our Fall 2010 issue, “How to Do Well and Do Good. “P&G turned around and grew its business in Brazil by having employees live in and observe low-income households,” Kanter wrote. The company developed new and modified products such as “environmentally-friendly and hands-friendly detergent for those without washing machines who hand-washed clothes” in response.

2 Comments On: Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s
Zoom In / Zoom Out Metaphor

  • Mark Andrew Higgins | March 14, 2011

    I think in light of todays fast paced environment this new paradigm in the way leaders think should be advocated not only in corporations, but in government as well. I think it’s the rare person who leads and gets the big picture and the details that comprise this overall vision.

  • Neeraj Kumar | March 20, 2011

    Agree. An interesting and important leadership tool. An overview (Zoom out) could provides the “WHERE-to-go” aspect, only the Zoom-In would provide the “HOW to go” detail, without which the risk of not getting THERE are higher. While leadership includes delegation (zoom in), it also includes looking for evidence of “way-marker” checks (evidence of adequate zoom-in).

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