4 Ways Attention to Detail Might Be Hurting Your Team

4 Ways Attention to Detail Might Be Hurting Your Team

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Attention to detail is a pattern of behavior that many teams hold in high esteem. Job descriptions, résumés and LinkedIn endorsements often emphasize attention to detail as a foundational component for any capable team member.

It’s easy to understand why teams value attention to detail ‒ almost everyone experiences the consequences of missed details at some point, and attention to detail can prevent these damaging experiences from happening.

Missed details can lead to inaccurate cost forecasting, underestimating work, a dysfunctional product and a seemingly endless list of other problems.

However, attention to detail can sometimes have a negative effect on your team if performed without proper guidance, and yet I’ve never heard anyone list “inattention to detail” on their résumés or as a skill on a job website.

I would posit that the world needs a few less people striving to be difference makers, and a few more up-and-coming indifference makers.

So, when is it better to be inattentive to detail? As the proverb goes, the devil is in the details. Here are five common examples of when attention to detail can have a negative effect on your team.

When It Adds Work That Isn’t Needed

Attention to detail is only as important as the details themselves. If you’re focusing your efforts on inconsequential details, you may be adding work to your team that isn’t needed.

If your team is a finite resource, this can be an unwelcome burden to contend with.

For example, if you’re in charge of a marketing team, you may be tempted to spend a lot of time carefully tailoring every mass email, Facebook post and tweet. However, if you don’t have any users following you on Twitter and it’s going to be an uphill battle to acquire additional followers, sacrificing some quality on Twitter by not proofreading every tweet might help reduce a lot of work for your team without resulting in much negative impact at all.

Take a look at your team and consider if there is any work being regularly performed with too much attention to detail, where less effort can save a lot of time without losing a lot of value.

When It Distracts From More Important Work

While paying attention to some details is completely unnecessary, other details may be valuable, albeit less valuable than others.

For example, it’s tempting to want to fix all existing bugs in a piece of software. After all, chances are someone is being affected or could be affected by bugs in your software and have a negative experience as a result.

However, not all bugs are created equal -- some bugs may be affecting a large section of customers while others may affect only small segments. For example, your software may have bugs that appear only in IE7, but if only 0.5 percent of your users use this browser, spending time fixing these bugs is time you could have spent fixing higher priority bugs, adding features to deliver more value to larger sets of customers or adding optimizations that reduce costs and deliver a better user experience for all customers.

When It Delays the Frequency of Shipping Increments

Sometimes, paying too much attention to detail tempts people to delay the shipping of increments, which is contrary to the goals of agile.

While it’s true that some details like feature requirements should hold up shipping an increment, scope creep that involves unnecessary details should not prevent your team from delivering. Many times, these minor details can be bumped to the next iteration, especially if the choice to not work on them doesn’t have a significant effect on your users.

In general, it’s better to get the increment out the door and collect feedback from users to readjust priorities and understand what work should be completed next. You may find that after your release the iteration, the users have more urgent needs that they communicate back to your team and would rather you not spend your time working out those smaller details.

When It Makes It Harder to Identify Problems

Along those lines, when details hold up shipping increments it can make it harder to identify problems.

For example, if the original task requirements were not fully explained or were missing some details during scoping, the sooner you ship the increment and collect feedback, the sooner you’ll uncover the gaps or items that were built based on incorrect input.

Getting bogged down in details that don’t have much of an impact can often obfuscate problems in your work by delaying iterations, so be sure to critically ask yourself if the detail is worth focusing on before you allow your current iteration to drag on down a potentially problematic path.

Putting It All Together

Attention to detail is very important in many cases, but not all cases. Similarly, inattention to detail shouldn’t be applied in a blanket fashion across all cases.

However, as illustrated above, you may want to analyze your current processes and see if there are gains to be had by eliminating attention to detail when it adds work that isn’t needed, distracts from more important work, delays shipping increments unnecessarily or prevents you from catching and addressing problems early on in the product development lifecycle.

Ready to be an indifference maker? Take a look at your current processes and let me know how your team could benefit from being less attentive to details in the comments section below.


Ken Shen Robinson is a senior product manager at Praetorian Digital, where he leads product management for EdTech products that make our communities smarter and safer.

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