Be a detail person! #14 of 55 things I have learned

I’m not much for reading management blogs. Most of them are  just a collection of worn-out cliches, but the fifth of Cristina’s Five Things You Wish You Could Say to Employees, really caught my eye. 

5. Your Work Is Sloppy! OK, don’t use the “s” word, it has all sorts of negative baggage. Employees who have this problem are usually aware that they are not “detail-oriented” and a more gentle reminder will work better. Here are some goals to address this issue: “Focus on tying up all loose ends before closing out or submitting a project.” Or, “Regularly employ to-do lists and checklists in order to ensure peace of mind that no step was skipped or overlooked.

I don’t understand why many people  who would be terribly bothered if they had to admit, “I don’t read very well”, think it is okay to say, “I’m bad at math” . Similarly, I am confused by the number of  people who say, almost proudly, “I’m not a detail person.”  I THINK they see being focused on the details, like whether or not the punctuation goes inside  or outside of the quotation marks as one type of person and seeing “the big picture” , like coming up with an idea for a research grant, as two mutually exclusive possibilities.

Anyone who tells me, “I am not a detail person” better have some GREAT (and I do mean GREAT) strengths in other areas for me to overlook that. Cristina Parisi put it perfectly. When you say you are not a detail person, it means that you leave work for other people to clean up behind you. For example, I knew a programmer who invariably had two or three misspelled words on every page that he wrote – email, documentation, memos – not because English was his second language or any type of  disability – he simply didn’t take the time to proof-read. Because we did not want documents sent out to clients or upper management to be peppered with misspelled words, someone else would always correct his work before sending it on. He often had problems with getting applications to function correctly. He would write a program that the logic made sense, there were no syntax errors, but the program just did not work. Invariably, there would be some detail he had overlooked, like that the password to access the data changed every 90 days and he had not changed it in his code. Because he was such a nice guy, when I found those problems the first several times, I fixed them. After that, I started pointing out – “You know, the directory was changed three weeks ago and that is why your code isn’t working.”

He never did see that HE had a problem and he couldn’t understand why he didn’t get promoted faster. He was definitely intelligent and very knowledgable about technology. From his point of view, he did what he was supposed to do – wrote a program, wrote a memo – and got it done on time. He couldn’t be bothered with the details of knowing whether the passwords were changed or the data were moved. That was someone else’s job.

There are people like him in every field, people who write a grant proposal – except that it is five pages over the twenty-page limit, lacks a budget and has no references cited. In other words – you left the work of finishing it up for ME to do – and often, finishing it up takes longer than any work you put into it (but that’s a detail you wouldn’t worry about, now is it?)

What those “non-detail” people don’t see is that they are often perceived as arrogant, that they assume that other people will clean up after them. Maybe that is why people feel it is okay to “not be detail-oriented”, because from their point of view, the president of General Motors or Microsoft or the United States doesn’t know all of the details of what company manufactures the spark plugs, the name of every file in the operating system or the location of every tank.

That may be so.

But you’re not him – and you’re irritating the hell out of your colleagues.


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  1. Thanks for this great post! I fully agree!
    I used to be called the “detail-oriented person” ever since which meant I was the one cleaning up after the non-detailed oriented persons.
    Very often others tried to convince me that at some point in your life you need to decide if you want to slave as a detail-oriented technical expert or become a visionary leader who is entitled not to are about any details. I have come across technical experts who wanted to be promoted into management because they believed this would put an end to dealing with annoying details.
    But according to my experience the best managers were those good at management and with technical proficiency.
    As you say – this is not mutually exclusive!

  2. Well said, elkement. I would rather have a boss who has gotten (and still gets) his/her hands dirty rather than give me textbook answers or solutions. As I’ve told many a trainee,’There’s the classroom, and then there’s the real world.’ Just because something works in the lab doesn’t mean it’s gonna work in the field. In my line of work, that has ALWAYS been the case.

  3. I agree with you both. This week I am putting together details like writing contracts to people to work on our next game. I’m also working on the story line. When I get done with that, I will be re-writing the testing and assessment part of our first game and finishing a database program for a client.

    For me, “I’m a big picture person” is often a hint that you’re really too lazy or undisciplined to follow through on everything that needs to be done to make your idea happen.

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