Monday, 13 April 2015

The devil is in the detail

The devil is in the detail
Many years ago, at a performance review, my then boss noted that he was sometimes frustrated by my attention to detail. I asked him if it was always a problem for him, or just in some case, and he replied that it was just in some cases. I then asked him if he could give me an example of where he'd been frustrated by my attention to detail, which he duly did. I pointed out to him that in that particularly instance, my attention to detail had resulted in avoiding what might otherwise have been a costly problem, and he conceded that this had indeed been the case. I then asked him if he could think of another example of where my attention to detail had frustrated him but where it had not resulted in a good outcome. At that point, he changed the conversation.

I've never really worked out why my attention to detail had frustrated him even though he knew full well that it had delivered results. Perhaps, he was just grumpy about something else altogether.

Whatever the reason, it remains often true that the devil is in the detail.

Strategy is often painted as a subject which concerns big picture, visionary thinking, not detail. However, without sufficient attention to detail, strategies usually flounder. The trick with successful strategies is two-fold:
  1. knowing when to focus on the big picture and vision, and when to focus on the details - striking the right balance between the two,

    and, perhaps more importantly
  2. knowing which details to pay attention to and which to ignore.
Almost by definition, in any strategic problem, there are way too many details to pay attention to all of them. If you try to pay attention to ever single detail you are almost guaranteed to be paralysed into inaction (often known as paralysis by analysis). Knowing which details to pay attention to and which to gloss over is an art as much as it is a science. I doubt anyone gets it right every time - I know I certainly don't - but you can get better at it. Experience is invariably a valuable guide, especially if applied systematically and reflectively. Strategy analysis tools and models also help to cut through the mass of detail to get to the heart of what is truly important.

Of course, models and tools in combination with experience produce the best outcomes. My Manufacturing and Operations lecturer on my MBA programme likened the available analysis tools and models to a mechanics toolbox: an experienced mechanics more quickly concludes when a faulty parts needs tapping rather than tightening and that a hammer will do that better than a spanner; an inexperienced mechanic will take that much longer to work out what the underlying problem is and what tool to use to solve it.

And yet, many people, like then boss seem intent on avoiding the details. Perhaps they lack the right kind of experience, or perhaps they don't know about or how to use the right tools. However, I suspect that it is the people who never obsess of the details that allow organisations to drift from one state of mediocrity to another.