Attention to detail: Deity or detritus

John Carroll Strategist

Did you hear the one about the multinational company whose sales campaign had to be repackaged due to the use of a single phrase that threw its entire objective into question? It’s no joke.

Intending to encourage and entice its worldwide sales force to higher levels of productivity and sales, the company’s central marketing and sales team used a key phrase to describe what it wanted: a well-oiled machine. That seems innocent enough, doesn’t it?

As it happens, the phrase they chose carries significantly different meanings in other countries and cultures. The phrase well-oiled, despite its popular American connotation of efficiency, means inebriated in one Western culture (well-oiled as in drunk) and bribed in another (well-oiled as in hands well-oiled with payment in return for future pardons or political or business favors).

The meanings carried such negative and confusing connotations that the entire event was recalled and put on hold until new descriptive terms could be printed on all pertinent literature and redistributed. Between the delay and the reprinting, this was an expensive lesson, as you might guess.

While you may see this as an example of low sensitivity to the diversity of a global company encompassing multiple cultures, I offer it as an example of a single, overlooked detail that jumped up and bit the company on its collective marketing keister.

Put into perspective, no one died due to this faux pas. Embarrassment likely passed relatively quickly and the story itself now carries a bit more humor in hindsight than it did as a current event. The lesson remains, however, that a detail as seemingly harmless as a short, descriptive phrase could delay a global sales promotion.


Exactly who or what is in the details?

In the example above, how was one to know and predict such confusion? How would those in charge revise their process to prevent repetition in the future? In other words, how would they prevent the detail from turning into derail? As it turns out, a quick check of an online dictionary labels one of the unanticipated meanings of oiled as idiomatic and the other as slang.

Would the company be well-served to have someone conduct a complete dictionary search on all corporate text before publication? Hardly. Would it make sense to widen the circle and ask key individuals from offices around the planet to check verbiage briefly? That’s quite possible. In the latter approach, an ounce of prevention with relatively low cost would more than justify itself. All this one really needed was a few more sets of eyes before its release.

Depending upon whom you ask, you’ll find either God or the devil in those minute details. And while some authors would encourage you not to sweat over such matters, since it’s all small stuff anyway, other creative types wouldn’t dream of having their work published until it attains masterpiece status in its category.

Names as familiar in American pop culture as Bruce Springsteen are identified with and expected to practice extreme attention to detail on each and every aspect of a new work or a recycled old one before release or re-release. That’s fine for art, you might say, but what about business? What constitutes a practical level of attention to detail for organizations of any size, hoping, with reasonable cost and lead time, to arrive at their destination, achieve their identified objective and do so unscathed by a detail tripping them up along the way?

Devotion to detail quiz

As with many questions, the initial answer is a resounding, “That depends.” Answer the questions on this quick quiz to determine where you stand on A2D spectrum:

  1. Will you give more than a single thought to a typographical error or misspelling on your published communication that you find after distribution of the piece?
  2. Does a punctuation question you can’t immediately answer send you scurrying to the Strunk and White manual on grammar and usage?
  3. Are you a stickler for the exact PMS number of color that guards the proper appearance of your company or brand logo? (Note: this is more often than not a good thing.)
  4. Does the mere thought of a detail-level mistake in which you were involved several or more years ago still generate a distinct grimace and less than fond memory for you?
  5. Do you revere those who carry the banner as protectors of proper language?
  6. Are you a fanatic about involving several pairs of eyes, including those of a team member whose record for catching errors before they escape the office or shop is unblemished?
  7. Are you one who believes that every revision provides a valuable opportunity for improvement?
  8. Do you lose sleep as you wrestle mentally with the thought of a detail derailing your current or upcoming project?
  9. Do suppliers avoid you as a matter of course so as to prevent the anticipated cost of returns and rework due to your extremely high standards?
  10. Do you work directly for someone who could answer yes to six or more of these questions?

If your honest answer to these questions was yes to:

  • Seven or more– You’re the detail person’s detail person. You should be (and may already be) responsible for keeping the Queen’s English. If you’re not already, you should be the team proofreader, provided that language is important to you. Your perfectionist tendencies, left unchecked, could lead to bouts of sleeplessness and repeated scourings of the list, spreadsheet or work product 20 or more times before you feel confident to release it.
  • Four to six – You appreciate a certain level of attention to detail. You have a healthy sense of what really makes a difference and you can easily distinguish between the vanity and the practicality of your own attention to detail.
  • Zero to three – There’s a double check person out there somewhere who may be wondering how you’ve survived all these years without his or her help. Those around you fully understand that, if at all possible, you shouldn’t be the final stop on anything heading out the door to a customer. Rest assured that these same people likely value you for your ability to see the big picture or for other qualities, skills and talents.


Driving between the lines

Let’s use an analogy to illustrate where attention to detail helps and where it can hurt. Think of driving a vehicle on a four-lane highway with two lanes available to you in your direction. Let’s say that the white line separating you from the edge of the road to your right represents the difference between reasonable and too much attention to detail, while the painted line on the left edge of the pavement represents the separation between reasonable and too little attention to detail.

In American driving, each of the two lanes has a primary function, with the right lane to be used primarily for slower to moderate rates of speed in traveling and the left to be used occasionally for passing. In the analogy, let’s give each lane a primary approach for attention to detail. The slower, more deliberate speed of the right lane will represent the care and attention to detail reserved for high-impact, high-priority projects and tasks. The left lane is used primarily for lower-impact, lower priority projects and tasks. Here’s how that might look:

Let’s call the trip conducting business. Some tips and insights:

  • Keep it on the road – Ideally, your attention to detail fits the situation and doesn’t have you driving in the weeds of too little or too much focus on the details. Coming off the pavement puts you in the danger zone of dropping speeds, loss of control and slower progress toward objectives.
  • Use the left lane to increase your velocity and make progress. Don’t reread a short e-mail message you’ve composed four times to check for spelling errors. If your written communication represents a challenge or area of weakness for you, give permission to a co-worker, asking him or her to give you a nudge when one of your written communications contains an error. When you get such a note, take it to heart to avoid repeating the mistake and be sure to thank the owner of that second set of eyes. Unless it created possible confusion in the minds of the recipients, there’s likely little or no need to resend the communication.
  • Drive more slowly in the right lane – You need focused time in this lane and your radar should be on its highest alert to prevent and eliminate any error in detail. Be aware that even one small error could stop or spoil the trip and proceed accordingly.


Choosing your lane

So how do you know which lane to choose and whether it’s time to check again versus time to advance? Here are several tips to help you sort the opportunities as they present themselves:

Use the right lane of higher attention to detail:

  1. When there’s a great deal on the line, as in a major account sale, an acquisition or a visit from a key dignitary, client or customer, err on the side of care with figures and other key elements of the presentation or visit. Add the numbers in both directions, read backward as well as forward and conduct a few dry runs, taking that extra bit of caution now. This level of care will allow you to breathe easily with that accomplished sense of “well done,” even if you don’t get or expect to get such a compliment from others.
  2. Take the extra time to check it just once more when the person receiving your project or piece tends toward perfectionism himself or herself. On balance, the extra time and effort you invest is likely small in cost compared to the perceived lack of attention from an important other who values that level of work.
  3. Consider the permanence of what you’re about to send out. If it’s a book to be published, check and recheck in hopes that you’ll find less than a handful of spelling and other typographical errors in your final product.
  4. To what degree will someone rely on your work? If you’re packing parachutes, and lives truly hang in the balance, getting it right the first time and double checking your work makes perfect sense. There’s no room for error here, period.
  5. When a misplaced or mistyped figure can mean a large penalty from a regulatory or government agency, you should obviously take the extra time and check it once more. Again the return on investment in preventing a potentially large and unnecessary expense more than justifies doubling back for one more look.
  6. When you’re working to stop a trend of faulty product, step back and check once more. While it’s been proven time and again that one cannot inspect quality into a product or service, it’s also quite instructive to catch it before it gets out the door, correct it before the customer receives it and begin the process of identifying and eliminating the root cause of the defect.


Use the left lane of relatively lower attention to detail:

  1. When your audience is already better off having used your material or been exposed to your information, get moving. A typographical error here or there will be quite overshadowed by the wow factor involved with your delivery and their reception of the product.
  2. When it pays you to be able to offer a new and improved version at some point in the future and you have a presentable product/service/package now, get it out in circulation.
  3. When it’s going online as content for your company’s web site or that of another, get it 80 percent right, as author and consultant Alan Weiss would say, and launch. The Internet has taught us at least one valuable lesson, giving us the capability and opportunity to fix things easily and quickly as we go with the added value of putting it out where the world can see and take advantage of the product, service or information offered. When we can correct easily and inexpensively once we’re underway, it may pay to get it out there sooner rather than later.
  4. When offering a correction gets you the opposite of your desired outcome. It’s said that Sir Winston Churchill, responding to someone’s critique of a piece he wrote, said, “From now on, ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put.”


When you’re dealing with detail, consider the practical implications before you move forward. With a little added effort and insight, you could become known as the most pragmatic and effective person around.

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