The devil is the detail

We often say ‘the devil is in the detail’ meaning that it is the small things that will catch us out.  But sometimes the problem begins by looking at the details in the first place.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of details.  I believe the more planning and specificity you can put into something, the better. The problem occurs when we jump into the details too quickly. Instead of starting with a strategic perspective, we dive right into the weeds.

This is a terrible way to do things.

If the point of what you are doing isn’t clear, no matter how successful you are at the tactical level, you won’t fully achieve what you set out to do. It becomes too easy to get sidetracked or diverted and end up somewhere else. Worst of all, because of tactical successes, you can mistakenly think that you are achieving your goal

One example I saw recently was nothing to do with business but it’s a good example nonetheless.

I dabble in long-distance running and am always looking for ways to improve. People training for marathons (26.2 miles) and beyond often run 50+ miles per week in training.  However, I struggle with this kind of mileage so I was looking for some tips. The point this coach made was that running 7-8 miles per day would allow you to hit this weekly mileage target (a tactical success) but wouldn’t prepare you for your goal of running 30+ miles in a race (a strategic failure).

Instead, you need a different approach to your training.  Keep the same weekly mileage, but structure your training in a way that allows you to meet your goal of completing a long race. The focus is on training quality, not quantity.

How does this relate to risk management or business?

Now even though you might not be a runner, this example highlights how a tactical success (hitting your mileage target) won’t necessarily help you achieve your goal (punishing yourself in a 30-mile race or longer). Instead, we need to have a clear understanding of our goal or intent to be successful.

We need to start with a strategic perspective.

The easiest way to think about this in a risk management context is to look at the definition of risk itself: “the effect of uncertainty on objectives” (ISO 73). By this definition, risk itself is strategic and we have to understand the objective(s) to be successful.

Understand the intent

Again, if we jump right into the details without knowing or considering the objective, we cannot hope to support or achieve our intent.

As an example, if a team at Tesla had simply been told ‘build a better battery’ their solution could have been very different than if they had been told that they needed to ‘build a better battery that was capable of powering a high-performance electric vehicle’. Without understanding this intent, the battery they developed might have been effective but too bulky, heavy or unable to sustain the loads that an electric sports car needs.

Even the most senior people in an organization can very quickly get into the tactical weeds if they ignore the big picture. However, if everyone in an organization understands the overall mission or intent, they should be able to focus on achieving that aim. In highly complex situations, such as spaceflight, even comparatively small matters can have significant implications so a strategic perspective helps ensure that nothing vital is relegated to second place.

Freedom of action

The second reason for understanding the overall intent is that this provides a great deal of freedom of action. Even though complete freedom of action isn’t normally possible and there will still need to be guidelines and some ground rules, being objectives-led allows people to adapt to change or to become more efficient.

As long as they keep their focus on the objective, they are free to get there in the most efficient and effective way possible.

Focus and motivate your team

The final reason for a strategic perspective is that it is motivating: everyone is part of something bigger.

The story of the stonemasons – ‘I’m stacking bricks’ versus ‘I’m building a cathedral’ – is sometimes used to illustrate this but just think about the person at reception or whoever answers the phone for an organization. If they are ‘just’ the receptionist – undervalued, low-paid or even a temp worker – they won’t feel like they are part of a bigger endeavor and aren’t going to be motivated to do much beyond the basics of sitting at their desk and occasionally picking up the phone.

However, this is literally the face or voice of the organization and if they don’t feel like they are part of something bigger, everyone’s first contact with the organization will be negative or at best lukewarm. Visitors and callers will have a very different experience if they are talking with someone who feels invested in the organization and sees how they are part of its success.

So that’s the why, but how do we become more strategic and objectives-led?

Developing a strategic perspective

Just do it!

This is one of the times where Nike’s slogan applies. To have more of a strategic perspective, you just need to have a strategic perspective….

However, although true, this isn’t very actionable so let’s look at a few practical steps.

Define and communicate the mission

First, you need a clear statement of the mission or goal, one that is communicated throughout the organization. Once you have identified your overall goal, break it into strategic objectives to help get you there. In turn, break these down into team or departmental objectives and tasks. This ensures that everyone is clear as to what they are trying to do and why, not just simply being told what to do. Sometimes referred to as being effects-led, this moves the focus to the outcome, not the action.

By the way, this isn’t necessarily just for high-level activities. Imagine simply telling someone to ‘cook a potato’. You could end up with wildly different results ranging from salad to french fries to gnocchi if you didn’t specify the outcome you wanted.

Plan down…explain up

Second, start at the top and work down. Begin at the strategic level – understand the big picture or overall context – before you get into the details. Remember, if you ask tactical questions, you get tactical answers. So begin with the mission or overall objective and work down. This lets you specify the effect you are trying to achieve before you identify the tasks needed to make that happen.

This ends up looking something like this:

Plan down: Objective → Effect → Task

Third, reverse this process and explain tasks in context, relating these back to the effect you want to achieve.

As an example, this is the difference between saying ‘keep this place clean’ and ‘maintain a sterile space [the task] to prevent the space crew from getting sick [the effect] and jeopardizing the space launch [the overall mission].’

Both instructions will result in a clean room but the latter, contextual description, will explains what the cleaning is meant to achieve and allows those involved to focus on what’s important (killing germs) instead of secondary things (stacking magazines).

This results in the reverse of the previous format.

Explain up: Task → Effect → Objective

Again, this doesn’t just apply to high-level activities. Think about how unfocused meetings without an objective become.

Maintain your perspective

Fourth and finally, keep looking up. The farther into a project you get, the easier it is to lose sight of the overall objective but without that target, you can easily lose focus, get off track or become demoralized. Moreover, sometimes the objective or a critical factor will change so continually reminding yourself of the objective will help keep you on target. That way you can complete your tasks and still achieve the aim.

By the way, ‘look up’ also applies literally. There are times where people are so intent on what they are doing, that they lose sight of what is happening all around them. By literally looking up, you can break away from the tactical details of what you are doing and re-orientate yourself to the overall goal.

Conclusion: It’s still all about the details but…

Despite all of this, don’t forget, the details are still there.

Even though you start with a strategic perspective, you will still have to get into the weeds at some stage. However if you take a top-down approach and keep the objective in mind, you are less likely to lose focus, drift off target and waste your efforts.

So even though the devil might still be in the details, don’t let the devil be the details.

I hope you enjoyed this but let me know what you think.  Add your thoughts and comments below.

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