No one can argue the importance of details. Try baking a cake (something I loathe doing, by the way) without making precise measurements of each one of your ingredients and you will soon find that even minor mistakes or small substitutes can be disastrous. But life or business is not always like baking a cake. Sometimes, it is more like cooking a pot of chili. You start out with basic ingredients and general measurements, but each batch is a little unique as you play with different quantities of seasonings or substitute chicken instead of ground beef from time to time. In fact, following a chili recipe detail by little detail can create a rather bland tasting chili. You have to adjust it along the way. Add a little more chili powder or a pinch more salt, despite what the recipe calls for, in order to spice it up a bit.
If you are a surgeon or a CFO, or a baker, details matter a lot! But, for the rest of us, they can hold us back, keep us bound to the old ways, or even distract us from the bigger picture. Effective business has to be able to adapt and move quickly, but if all you focus on is the details, you can trap yourself into a pursuit of perfection that leads to failure. We have all heard the saying that some people can’t see the forest through the trees, but let’s bring a little more life to this tale…
A Short Fairy Tail
In a land far away, there was a man tasked with protecting the great forest. His one and only job was to make sure that no one cut down and stole any trees. This man took his job very seriously, so every day he set out into the woods to count each tree. One day, as he finished counting, he was horrified to find that there were two trees missing! Discouraged but not dismayed, he started out the next morning with an even greater diligence. He once again counted each tree, but this time he also looked very closely as he went on his way. He examined every detail of every tree but could find no sign of foul play, yet at the end of his count, he found four more trees had gone missing. This continued day after day, even though each day the man paid closer and closer attention to each tree. He got out a magnifying glass to check the bark for bugs; he crawled hands and knees around the trees looking for any sign of what could be going wrong.
As the forest got smaller and smaller and the man got more and more desperate. One day a small boy walking through the woods found the man examining the trees in exhausting detail. Perplexed, the boy stopped and asked the man, “What are you doing?” The man replied, “Someone is stealing all the trees so I am counting them and examining them to find out who.” The boy, anxious to help, and very sure that he knew just what to do, exclaimed, “I have a plan! Meet me here tomorrow.” Not knowing what else to do, the man agreed, but “Only for a moment,” he begrudged, “I can’t be distracted from counting the trees.”.
The next day, the boy took the man to the top of a nearby hill at the edge of the woods. He pointed down below and said, “See, look there.” Amazingly, the man saw what he had been searching for so long for. Four crooks with axes and carts were at the edge of the forest hiding just out of sight from a ground view. Instantly, the man put the puzzle together. You see, while he was busy counting; the crooks knew that once he passed them by he would never look back. So consumed by the task of counting and examining the trees, the man never thought to look back, never noticed what was happening at a birds-eye view.
Four Questions to Ask Yourself
OK, so perhaps we are too old for fairy tales, but how many of us fail to meet deadlines, catch big problems, or are unable to find the time to test new ideas because we are so consumed by the details that nothing else seems to matter. The problem is that details only tell a story when they are all put together into a completed puzzle, yet so many of us try to create a puzzle by simply perfecting one piece instead of trying to figure out where it fits into the bigger picture, just how it is, as it is.
I am not saying that attention to detail does not have its place, but like with everything else, there has to be balance. If you find yourself stuck, unable to move forward, struggling to find time for bigger picture things, you may need to admit that you have a detail problem. In business, many of the things that we fixate on and think are important are actually distractions, if not more severe, hindrances to our success. Check your priorities by asking a few questions:
1. If I want to increase my revenue today, would I be focusing on this detail or something else?
2. Does this detail help customers find me, connect with me, purchase from me, or recommend me to others?
3. Does perfecting this detail matter to me or to my customers (be really honest now – this question is harder than it looks)?
4. If this detail is not perfect, will my business suffer?
I know that it can be hard to break the habit of being too detail-oriented. Most of our lives, we are taught that the details make the difference. I would say that this is true, but what details make the difference? The details that matter are the ones that increase your revenue by helping your customers, find you, connect with you, purchase from you and recommend you to others, by providing value that matters to them. Everything else is simply missing the forest through the trees.