Do you hear often: "Let's look at the big picture" or "Let's start with 5000 feet overview"?
What they usually mean is, let's see why we need this thing, and let's see how it is used. Let's zoom out and zoom in again.
Zooming in and out is cool. However, there is a tool for looking at the thing zoomed in and out at the same time, and more. They call it "Screen Thinking", because everything is on a screen at the same time. "They" are inventors of TRIZ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/TRIZ, invention methodology. This theory is fine-tuned for technical inventions, and does not fit well to other fields, like lubricator does not fit to a kitchen, but many TRIZ concepts, like screen thinking, are good and useful outside the TRIZ.
Here is the diagram.
The thing we consider is in the middle. Left side is the past; right side is the future. Lower row is some sub-systems of the thing, while upper row is the super-system.
Of course, this diagram can be extended up and down, to the left and to the right when needed.
Let's say, or thing is steamship.
Previous thing would be parts it built from; next thing would be scrap or wreck.
Sub-systems would be hull, engine, wheels, and so on.
Super-system would be fleet.
This diagram helps to track lifecycle of both things and classes of things. Let's say, for ship propulsion type, on the left would be sail, on the right - diesel. For cross-Atlantic means of public transportation on the right would be zeppelins, then airplanes. Why do we look at sub- and supersystems too? Well, if chimneysweeper loose a limb (subsystem) of if new heating approaches make the whole occupation obsolete, that would definetely impact her lifestyle.
Looking at the diagram, we can analyze not just some linear change (like tree grows), but fundamental changes too. New things emerge, old things disappear. Usual thing can be replaced with something completely different.
Sub-systems often evolve revolutionary (abruptly), but super-system rarely do so - they evolve slowly and smoothly.
What is missing on the diagram? Most importantly, forces that cause things to change. We do not see contradictions that induce these forces. We see things change, but we do not see why. Why drive-in movie theaters become obsolete, while playing golf did not?
Nevertheless, screen thinking is quite useful tool. It is simple, easy to use, and is a good starting point for deeper analysis. It even has some predictive power, but not very strong one. For heavy-duty predictions you need to analyze forces involved, which is outside of a scope of this article.