The Devil Is In The Details

The Devil is in the Details

Dave Kinnear1-On Leadership, 3-LI

Yep, the devil is in the details, which means what, exactly? What are your intentions when you speak those words out loud or mumble them to yourself? If you’re reminding yourself that you haven’t thought this project through enough to understand what’s involved, then OK. And, if you sound a cautionary note for me, as a would-be change agent, also fine.

Caution or obstruction?

On the other hand, I must note that, more often than not, I hear that phrase as a way to slow down or impede progress.

The Devil Is In The Details

Sometimes, it’s to refute a general trend. A corollary statement is, “That’s a ‘macro-trend,’ and what’s important is the ‘micro-trend.’ ” Well, maybe so. If I’m thinking of investing in a company, then I sure don’t want to look only at GDP for the nation. I might do well to look at some details, some micro-trends—like industry trends and perhaps specific company results. Generally speaking, though, the Vision or Strategy should be big picture, not impeded by or bogged down in details. The goals and actual plan may succumb to the evil details that frequently alter the direction of projects. The vision, however, stays agnostic to details.

Stop or Adjust?

It’s true when we start digging into the requirements of a large project or begin executing on that well thought out plan we are often thwarted by some devilish detail on which we had not planned. We have a choice at that point. We can cancel the project and admit defeat, or we can figure out a way to mitigate that pesky little detail. I know this. Those who march out a bunch of minutia in the spirit of showing why the project won’t work do not belong on the project. If, however, the intention is to make sure that all requirements are vetted and then met, THOSE are the folks I would love to have on the project.


So where details are concerned, it comes down to intentions. I have worked on several large ERP installations and numerous other sales, marketing, and operation projects. I enjoy having folks on the team who have the persistence and resilience to work on details. They intend to make sure that the project not only succeeds but also improves the business process for all involved.

It is not at all helpful to be mired in details when we are assembling high-level plans. My favorite analogy is that one cannot wait for all the lights along the cross country train tracks to be green before leaving the station. No, we know there are red lights along the way, but we get started on our trip despite that.

Leaders know that there are devils throughout the project, and they don’t let them get in the way. Good leaders keep their eyes on the broader vision. They have faith that the team will iron out all the details. When the devil appears, the great leaders assess the impact, communicate the necessary change in plans, and keep the team moving forward.