“The Details” Meet “The Big Picture”

There is a saying, "The devil is in the details." And there's another saying, "Don't miss the forest for the trees." Are these tried and true words of wisdom at odds with each other?

We've all been there. You're trying to figure out what the problem is. Whether it's a thorny accounting issue, a challenging marketing problem, a quest for an engineering breakthrough, solving a recurring maintenance issue...we need to dig deep, and hence "the devil is in the details."

At the same time, I am reminded of an old Stephen Covey story... The workers were working doggedly, day after day, harvesting wood in the forest, until someone climbed up one of the trees, high above, looked out, then yelled down, "Wrong forest!" Indeed, if we get too mired in the details, we can run the risk of missing the forest for the trees!

Don't Miss the Forest For the Trees

I revisited this idea recently as I attended a conference session, in which the focus was on a technical specification. It was obvious that a lot of good work had been done. Participants had dug deeply. I would also say that the overall purpose had been well defined - at least at the beginning of the effort - and was being carried through.

However, despite the admirable work that I observed, something was still bothering me about it. I had the sense that there was an "Achilles heel" somewhere in this.

What was driving my angst?

I was bothered by the fact that the effort was 5 years old and running.

Leadership spoke about moving into a different phase of development...which made sense, but seemed to all stem from a plan made five years ago.

The rigorous vetting process seemed set in stone - not necessarily a bad thing, but it hit me that way...

Key personnel had been involved since inception - which again is a positive thing but still bothered me...

Despite obvious accomplishments demonstrated, very little of this had actually been implemented, which will take years.

Summing it up
As I discussed this with several people and reflected on the experience, I gathered my thoughts on what I thought could be the source of my angst.

My sense was that this was a well-funded effort that had support of upper management. However, the leaders of the effort itself were really implementers. Their job was to put the project in place - institutionalize it - as required by directive.

Little was explained in terms of specific short, medium, and long-term goals - and, more importantly, no metrics were mentioned for measuring success or failure.

There are completing technologies and approaches, but this effort is largely ignoring them. While people may occasionally acknowledge them, they are moving steadfastly in the original direction that was set.

The whole thing seemed devoid of new ideas...unless they related to tweaking existing efforts in some way to make them work a little better.

I got a bit of sense of protectionism...of the "institution" that had been created as the main part of this effort. Other approaches were deflected and pushed aside...

The Forest, the Trees, the Devil, and the Details

All of the elements - the Forest, the Trees, the Devil, and the Details - seem to exist in full bloom on this project. But what place do they have?

It's important to look at the details. However, if you institutionalize the looking at the details in a rigid way, you may excel at that, but you leave yourself open to missing the forest for the trees.

If you look at the forest, pull together a team and move out...but don't build flexibility into your program to continuously assess the forest and the natural shifts around you, in time you could find you are in the wrong forest!

The devil is in the details...but you need to make sure you're looking at the right details! That's where the forest and the trees meet!

The Recommended Approach
To quote again from Stephen Covey, "Begin with the end in mind." But I think we need to be vigilant with our timeframes and changing environment!
We need to be realistic about what is or might be changing around us!

We need to define the end in a sufficiently detailed way to have a way to measure it, yet in a general enough way to allow us to reconsider our direction as appropriate throughout the life of the program.

And we need to measure our progress toward that ultimate end that we have in mind.

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