Serious Soft Skills


Podcast 37: Details, Details, Details

Ep. 37

Paying attention to details can help an individual, the team and the organization. Yet most of us struggle with this important soft skill. Learn why it matters and how to do it better in this episode of Serious Soft Skills.

Cohosts Dr. Tobin Porterfield and Bob Graham explore the many important benefits of paying attention to details.

Among the topics they cover:

  1. Who benefits from our attention to detail
  2. What happens when we don’t pay attention to details
  3. How to pay attention to details more effectively
  4. Eight hints for better paying attention to details


Bob Graham: In this week's episode, we're going to talk about paying attention to detail. That's right. Paying attention to all that little stuff that sometimes drives us crazy with what matters and how to be better about it. All that and more, coming up in just a few seconds.

Welcome to Series Soft Skills. We're here to help you unleash the power of soft skills with Dr. Tobin Porterfield and Bob Graham. We write books, conduct academic research and are working on vehicles like this podcast to help people better understand soft skills.

Can you set us up here?

Dr. Tobin Porterfield: I can, but I have to say the same thing is that we always talk about soft skills and how you need to develop a strategy to ensure when you're hiring into your team that you hire new people with soft skills that can fill gaps in your own soft skill list. Companies have failed miserably at this.

I'm sure we'll get some feedback from some of our listeners and folks who read our ebook and say, "Hey, you guys clearly are not experts in this detail thing because I see some errors here and there." It's humbling, 

We have some people in our circle who are very detail oriented and are able to help us with a lot of those gaps. But you and I can get so so engaged in the big picture and all, understanding the goal we're trying to reach, that some of the details can get lost and that can create a almost an embarrassing situation, where there's errors. If there's oversight and someone from the outside might looking go how can you even talk about this item or or provide this report and had made of you know this type of a mistake, it's clear that you don't know what you're doing and that's not always the case.

It's a a person who may be quite the expert in an area but failed to pay attention to detail. So I think there is hope for us and others who don't always catch all the details and I think we can cover some of those things and ways to combat that in this episode.

Graham: Just to be really clear at the beginning, paying attention to detail does not mean that there will not be mistakes. It just means that there are fewer mistakes. Every organization, every employee, every person is going to make mistakes and I think when I see we first started talking about the attention to detail with myself, I read it to be no mistakes, eliminate all mistakes. That's a popular misconception that we should probably just get out in the open. That's not what we're saying here.

What we're really saying, in my mind, is we're trying to minimize mistakes and minimize opportunities to make repeated mistakes. Does that sounds sort of logical to you?

Porterfield: I agree and I think there's the that parallel. I think it manifests itself in mistakes, but also it's that combination between the tactical and strategic. The strategic is the big picture. Somebody though needs the detailed plan of how we're going to get there so it's connecting those two things together. I often work with colleagues who clearly have the vision or have the direction of what we want to do, but they're lost in what details what would be required really to get that done. And if they attempted to do it themselves, I know that they would forget all of these steps. Will this person need to be contacted and you had to update this document and and so there are some important things that have to be done and it they can often be overlooked. I think that's part of the details they often say that old adage, the devil's in the details.

I think that's what they're referring to is that you really can fail to accomplish what you had set out to do because you weren't aware of all of the details, the the finer points of what had to be done in order to accomplish it . So you're talking about the steps in the process so a strategic person's thinking we want to accomplish acts to achieve the big goal.

Graham: There's gotta be someone, whether it's that person or someone else who's got to say A. B. C. D. E. F. G. in this sequence will lead us to that objective. Is that correct?

Porterfield: That's my view on it and and I agree with what you're saying also when it comes to making mistakes is also kind of fits well with that and like many soft skills, this also overlap some with the soft skill that we describe as project management skills because project management is all about combining that scope of what we're trying to accomplish and in making sure you've got an excusable plan to get there. This one of the kind of combines that and I think when we frame it as a soft skill, we are trying to remind people that it's everyone's responsibility to be aware that there are details and that they do need to be addressed. And how we address them, sometimes it's bringing someone alongside of you that can check things and make sure and run it past them. Sometimes, it's mapping out a vision and even bringing a group together, then mapping it out on the whiteboard to say this is what we're trying to get there. Hey don't forget we need to do this and and who's going to take it that means we quickly can figure out the path. 

It also brings up another one of our soft skills. We can delegate some of those activities to the appropriate person, who can manage. Some things we need more attention to detail for and some need less. We can determine when we need more and we can also see it as a differentiator among employees. 

Graham: Well, I have a situation that I actually have run into. I'm going to change it a little bit so it doesn't damage me, but this goes way back in my career. A manager receives a report on monthly statistics from an employee and that manager is pressed for time. The report needs to go up the ladder to her boss and her boss's boss so she doesn't check those numbers. She just passes them along without looking closely. Next thing you know, a few hours later, she finds out from one of her bosses that there was a really egregious mistake in there. 

We see this happening all the time and I know when it happened to me as the employee, it real eroded trust with my boss in the short term. She thinks, Bob, I count on you to do these things. Why wasn't this done correctly? 

We get to the idea of trust as you're building teams. If everyone's paying attention to detail, your team's going to probably flourish more so than when there's a constant need to go back and check work. Who wants to spend time figuring out if he did everything he said he was going to do.

The more we can spend our time as a team looking at the big picture, the better we can be. I agree and I love that team focus. If I had my team where I wanted them to be acting as a group, they would certainly start with a recognition of the importance of the details and that failure to address the details will result in not fully accomplishing or end up causing us a lot of additional work in the long run. So having a team that recognizes it and each addressing it in their own way means they are going to be more able and skilled at doing that than others. But everyone's recognition of it and then knowing that is key. As I put this together, before I send it around the entire group, I'm going to send it to one or two people to just double-check and see if I'm missing any major points.

So getting getting conscious of enough that they can solve problems and also rely on others to provide some feedback, it is finding the people the team that are some sort of backstop who can guard us from ourselves. 

Graham: That's really critical so in our case with you and me. You started keeping a list of what we agree to what our weekly meetings, which has really made me pay attention to detail because I can't forget it because it's on a sheet of paper that you email to me. So finding things like that is one strategy. 

But Toby we should probably take a break because I've got some other hints for how people can be a little better detail oriented.

Porterfield: Welcome back. We've been talking about details details details and how important they are to teams. Bob, we want to get kind of a more application oriented here. You have some helpful hints on not letting those details get past us.

Graham; I came up with a list from my own experience in talking to a couple of people. These are not any great order but they're sort of some of the things that when I'm on my game and paying attention to detail I'm following. The first one is keep a list. I know that sounds really elementary and many people say oh I can keep it in my head. I'm fine. But that's really easier said than done and I find one of the ways that help I can sleep at night, believe it or not, is to actually write a list of what I'm going to do the next day before I go to bed. If I don't have that list, I roll around in bed thinking about all the things I have to do because I know that paying attention to detail can be a challenge for me.

The second thing is create a schedule and stick to it. So if you check your email at 9:00 every morning, do that at 9:00 every morning you're gonna check your email and that's built to your schedule. And if you need to do something else -- exercise for me is one of those things -- I try to schedule it into my day to make sure that I do it because otherwise, it falls off that list. That's part of the attention to detail.

The next thing is probably the most foolish one and the most logical on at the same time. Avoid distractions. Now that is not the easiest thing for me and distractions come from things that are essential that you have to deal with. Someone comes and says we need to deal with this problem right now. But what I'm talking about is the distractions of listening to music or watching TV while you're working or goofing off with your friends when you really should be working. I find that when I make mistakes, it's often when I'm distracted by something out of the ordinary so closing my door and focusing on my work tends to help me with avoiding distractions and being more focused on details.

Another one that we deal with that has really come on the last 10-20 years is the idea we all think that we can multi-task, which is doing two things at one time. There's a great deal research now that says that's just impossible; you can only focus your mind on one thing at a time. So figure out what that focus is going to be, focus on that one thing, get it done and then move to the next thing.

I mentioned exercise. Believe it or not, there's research that shows that exercise will actually help build your concentration and your attention to detail so getting regular exercise gets the brain working and the synapses firing so that's real good and then conversely, believe it or not, it's good to take breaks. We tend not to be real effective when we work for long periods of time. The Perreto Rule is 25 minutes of hard work and then take a five minute break. You can look that up. 

Then the last one I would give, Toby, would be don't beat yourself up when you don't pay attention to details. I'm a perfectionist; every mistake I made is a major incident in my mind and I find that when I can get away from that just say you know what I made a mistake what and build a system to recover from that so when I do wrong, I try to find where the breakdown is and how to fix that breakdown. That's when I find that I'm actually more successful going forward and I think you told me you liked my list because you saw a preview. But you want to add one or two to it.

Porterfield: I want to add number eight because I knew this is where I get myself into trouble and it fits with some of things you're talking talking about. But let me get out a little more specific. For me, I really have to allow time for drafts and revisions and proofreading. I find that if I'm working on a two o'clock deadline I will have everything mapped out a be working and I always fall behind because there was a piece of data I needed. Then I have to go get it and sure enough I deliver the product at two o'clock as promised out in the email. And I immediately get a feat a response from someone saying I forgot to attach something or I forgot to change the date. If I had just finished it an hour earlier and sent it out to those couple people, asking them to take a look at it before I send it out, then everyone wouldn't see there's anything glaring that I'm overlooking. So I get so tied up to my deadlines and and people will probably say about me all yeah he always makes his deadlines, but if I pressed a little harder, they'll say a yeah there's so many times you know he needs to redo it. We find something in these to be fixed and and so I really have to map into my timeframe to include having time to send it out and allow that person whatever time they need to look at it and provide some additional input. So that goes into the scheduling and the avoiding distractions.

Graham: It sounds to me like your task might be remember time for revision and build that into your schedule.

I think we've given some people some helpful hints. We've put a face on one of the soft skills that people tend to overlook. Next week we're going to discuss another the soft skills complying with standards, which is when the people fear will be boring, but we're going to make it come to life. Until then, thanks for listening, good day and good soft skills.