How much ‘detail’ should a leader go into?

 “Details make perfection, and perfection is not a detail” said Leonardo da Vinci.  That held him in good stead while painting the Mona Lisa.  But leaders don’t have enough time to get into the details of everything.  Getting into too much detail can add work and increase timelines. It can divert from more important work.  So how does a leader decide how much detail to get into? And when to zoom out for a bird’s eye view? How does a leader differentiate between important details and the fluffy stuff?  This article attempts to answer these questions. 

In July 1999, the telecom sector moved from a fixed license fee to a revenue share-based license fee. Revenue share was a percentage of Adjusted Gross Revenues or AGR. In 2001, we got the definition of AGR. That definition is the cause of much heartburn today for the telecom companies. It considers all revenues earned by a licensee while computing AGR. Irrespective of the linkage between revenue and the grant of license. While that’s a flawed concept (detailed explanation here), the definition seems quite clear.

Did the companies sign agreements without realizing the impact of the AGR definition? Or in their keenness to sign the agreements, there was no legal vetting of the 176- page contract? Or, did they realize the issue and stay quiet? Fearing that the government wouldn’t take kindly to them debating the definition. And felt they’d cross the bridge when they reach it. There isn’t any answer in the public domain. But, what’s clear (at least in hindsight) is that there wasn’t enough attention to an important detail.

So, how does a leader decide how much detail to get into?  Let’s use a construct borrowed from Jim Schleckser of the CEO Project. Jim proposes that an effective CEO needs to use 5 different hats to be effective. We’ll look at how a leader’s attention to detail should vary depending on the hat being worn.

The Architect Hat

A leader needs an Architect Hat when developing a vision or strategy. S/he’s planning the future of the company and visualizing the road to get to that future. Important stuff such as defining customer, product differentiation, business model. All these are iterative rather than cast-in-stone. Leaders should use the Architect Hat often.

Is detail-orientation important when wearing the Architect Hat? Its super important. You can’t build a strategy without absolute clarity on product differentiation, for instance. That said, it’s easy to get sucked into too much detail. Great strategy requires creativity. It’s a blend of art and science. Strategy development shouldn’t devolve into a number-maze, market surveys and pointless meetings. If it does, you know you need to take that Architect Hat off. Remember to keep putting it back on though!

The Engineer Hat

The leader with the Engineer Hat translates the strategy into something real. That includes building systems and processes. Or tinkering around with the organizational structure or making action plans. Is detail-orientation important when wearing the Engineer Hat? Yes. Everything must be perfect when casting a slab. The right concrete mixture, the perfect way to finish and the right curing procedures. Detail orientation is also important while designing systems and process. Leaders should be closely involved in the development of key systems and processes. That doesn’t mean that a leader is involved, for instance, in making every process map. It means that a leader ensures detail orientation in everything that’s done. And goes into the details himself for critical areas.

The Player Hat

The Player Hat has a leader getting into the thick of things.  The leader performs a task or a part of a task by themselves.  Very high detail orientation required.  The Player Hat is often the favourite hat for small and medium business leaders. It could be an area of expertise. More commonly, the leader finds the need to be involved in everything that happens. Conversely, the Player Hat isn’t favoured much by some large business leaders. They’ve either forgotten how to do many things themselves or worry about appearances. To be fair, it’s often the scale and scope of their responsibilities that prevent them from putting on the Player Hat more often.  Is that what happened at the telecom companies? That the leaders didn’t put on their Player Hats and read the key parts of the license agreements? And didn’t realize how the definition was at clear odds with an acceptable commercial model? We probably won’t know the answer.  But it’s worth a ponder.

The Coach Hat

This hat is for leaders while teaching and mentoring employees. And it isn’t only hard skills such as, for instance, sales scripts. It also includes soft skills coaching like teaching appropriate behaviours. Behaviours define organizational culture and hence are important. Is detail orientation important? Very. Whether for an internally delivered training programme or an external one. Spend a lot of time customizing the content to your organization. Also note for behavioural training, the most effective place for the training is in your organization. Where employees learn behaviours by imitating leaders.

The Learner Hat

Leaders need to learn. Is detail orientation important? It depends. If a leader is trying to learn about trends which can disrupt the business model? Detail is super important. For instance, a financial services industry leader needs deep learning about technology. Technology which can disrupt their business model. For other things, not so much. For instance, a leader doesn’t need to get (thankfully!) into the murky details of GST.

Closing thoughts

As a leader, it’s instructive to track how much time you spend using each of these hats.  And if you have a lot of activities which don’t require wearing any of these hats, you’re doing a lot of unnecessary activities.  For the rest, detail orientation depends on two things.  One- which hat you are wearing.  Two- the implications of detail-orientation on your business.  For instance, if a contract (like the telecom license one) has the potential to make or break your business, go ahead and dot every iand cross every t!


Hat tip to Jim Schleckser for the wonderful construct of the Five Hats.  Don’t know why it isn’t more popular!

Have some comments?  Post below.  Liked the article?  Use the Share button at the bottom.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Share This

Copy Link to Clipboard