Is the devil really in the detail?

I work in a world that can appear very complicated. There are options all around, different ways of thinking about things at every turning, a new methodology just over the horizon and innovations just around the next corner.

Choices upon choices upon choices. Options within options within options.

I’ve been in a number of situations recently where, in response to this complexity, someone has said – “the devil is in the detail”. It’s a common saying which seems to get applied whenever complexity looks like a problem but is it really just cheap shorthand? Is it just an office cliché?

One recently situation was a review meeting where a number of people where looking at a design for a project we’ve been working on. Like all designs it defines a solution to a level. To document it all would be impossible and produce mountains of documentation, so the design focuses on the major elements and defines them to a level to enable understanding. During the review someone said something like “I’m OK with this document, but like all of these things – the devil is in the detail”. Whether it was deliberate or not the individual concerned was communicating “it doesn’t matter how good a job you do you’ll miss something that really important that will make our life difficult later on”.

In another situation someone was explaining to me the various options that existed for a solution to a customers business problem. I needed to be able to understand, at a high level, what the options were. The only way this particular individual could communicate was via the detail – lots of detail. When I tried to summarise what they were telling me their response was “yes, but the devil is in the detail”. or, in other words, “don’t simplify it, it’s too complex”.

These two situations got me thinking – is the devil really in the detail?

When I look back at all of the projects that I’ve conducted and all of the solutions I’ve delivered, how many times has the devil really been in the detail?

And, if we had spent more time on the detail would we have found the devil and removed it?

Or, actually, has the devil really been somewhere else?

Here’s my short conclusion: Sometimes, yes the devil has been in the detail, but normally, no the devil wasn’t down in the detail. And what’s more, where the devil was in the detail it is highly unlikely that would have found that devil by being “more detailed”. The devil wasn’t hiding in the detail we were looking at, he was busy in another bit of detail out of sight..

What I have noticed though, is that more often it’s not in the details that the devil lies – it’s in the overview, the macro, the summary. Or more specifically, it’s in the assumptions that accompany the high level view.

In simpler terms:

When I say x I mean x,

but you assume that when I say x I really mean x + y.

This is where a dichotomy raises it’s head. If the devil is in the summary and the overview, surely the answer is more detail – but actually putting more detail in just adds fuel to the fire of confusion. The detail doesn’t lead to understanding, it leads to blank stairs and nodding unknowing heads.

What can be the answer?

Unfortunately I have no hidden supply of magic bullets, or long lost alchemy, just some observations:

  • Simplification is an art that few are skilled in, but it is at the root of the answer.
  • Considering all of the options just adds to the perception of complexity.
  • Presenting all of the options turns complexity into confusion.
  • 1000 options are only 1000 options if you are likely to make a choice. If you aren’t likely to change them then they aren’t options. There are over 1000 routes from here to my house, but only very few of them are realistic choices.
  • Pictures are a great way of driving simplicity out of complexity.
  • Words need to be used precisely and consistently. Finding the right word can make all the difference, but words soon loose their precise meaning.
  • Defend the meaning of words. Once the meaning of a word has been lost there’s no point trying to get it back.
  • Projects act like snowballs travelling down a hill. if you start it off in the wrong directions there’s no point in trying change the direction correctly once it’s rolling.
  • Communication is another key.

One thought on “Is the devil really in the detail?”

  1. A good piece Graham. I think it is a cliché. As you say there seems to be a need from certain people to over complicate a situation, when a concise overview of what the solution is, how it will be delivered and how it will affect the end user would be better.

    I could be wrong here, but should it really matter to the customer how complex the solution is, so long as it is delivered to their requirements and within the restraints stipulated.

    For example when I post a letter to be delivered half way around the world, all I need to know is that I have to put the right address on the envelope and pay the postage. I don’t know nor care how it gets there so long as it gets there on time and for the cost agreed.


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