Of all the clichés I hear, “the devil is in the details” may be most overused. It also bugs me. Why? Because, along with my associate consultants, I devote a lot of attention to the details that can make or break organizational strategies. 

Why are details by their nature so commonly associated with Satan himself?

 Photo by John Carlisle

Photo by John Carlisle

Details do seem to annoy people. Maybe that’s because we have so much of them in daily life – it can be overwhelming. In his book, Thinking Fast and Slow, Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman discusses how our brains work, and attributes this common reaction to a natural tendency of our minds to be lazy. We want to take the easiest route to a conclusion, and details make us work.

That may be why, in our applied research study of 43 nonprofits, Public Interest Management Group found that most lacked detailed goals in strategic plans. In other words, the plans were vague about intended results, programmatic and/or financial. Yet, our study showed that having specified goals – backed up by analysis and research – was among the highest correlations with organizational success among 35 factors we examined. Details may be annoying, but they can really help.

The annoyance factor may also be why a recent expose from the New York Times article – 38 pages of painstaking documentation on how the President of the United States and his family committed apparent systematic tax fraud – lasted one full day in the news cycle. That same week, a story about an emotional support squirrel rotated in the headlines for three days. This could have been the Pentagon Papers of our day, but essentially no one seemed to care.  Too much work…

It turns out, “the devil is in the details” has an interesting pedigree. It didn’t come into common use until the 1990s. The first known use was in 1963 (concerning early negotiations on the European Union). But that was transformed from a much older German proverb, “God is in the details,” which certainly has a different connotation. The original version makes me think of the elegant beauty of the universe, explained by scientific theories and decades of disciplined research, or maybe the inner-workings of sophisticated devices such as clocks or telescopes. 

How did Godlike become devilish? Some may blame it on the EU, but it certainly resonates in many situations.

Running from the basic elements has its pitfalls. We can say with some confidence that attending to critical details in running organizations is a good practice. But this doesn’t mean that drowning in data is required. The keys are to identify those data points that are essential, get good information and use it to make decisions. Quality is more important than quantity.

Our strategic and business plans always include a balanced scorecard, a concise set of metrics that describe a particular organization’s performance at a strategic level. Many metrics that nonprofits use in board and staff meetings (the best example being the stereotypical, and common, voluminous financial report) are uninformative and alienating. The key to effective use of data is the picking and choosing of which data to share and discuss. 

Using data this way can help people see its Godlike qualities – the power to understand and deeper confidence in group decisions.

Thinking ahead to New Year resolutions, three come to mind for me: simplify; get the devil out of the details; and don’t use clichés.

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AuthorScott Schaffer