It’s a lovely expression and a nice reminder that the simplest, seemingly insignificant details can prove to be the most difficult; evidence, we might think, of the wisdom that time spent dwelling on the deepest intricacies is time well spent.
And yet anyone who knows the value of being precise, will also know how easy it is to become lost in that same maze of minor considerations. As with so much in life, it’s sometimes hard to know when enough is enough.
This is why a different version of the same expression can offer us some useful guidance. The German-American architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe preferred to say that ‘God’ – not the devil – ‘is in the detail’. Appropriately enough, it’s a small change which says a lot. The emphasis is still being placed on rigour and close attention, but it says something subtly different about the significance of small things. Rather than treating the detail as your enemy (something to worry about or fear), it can be seen as an opportunity. It’s not that they exist to trip us up in a devilish trick, but that the little details can be the difference between the good and the great. They can be the final element of brilliance that elevates a piece of work above others.
This approach doesn’t ask – ‘What’s wrong?’. (Since nothing is ever flawless, we can always find an imperfection if we go looking for one.) Rather, it asks: ‘How can we make this better?’. It may be that improvements are possible, little changes can make a big difference, but sometimes you simply can’t make something better. This is why it’s important to try and avoid asking – ‘what’s wrong?’ – it may leave you trying to do the impossible. You might find yourself trying to gild the lily and improve the un-improvable.
There are countless start-up companies who understand the danger of this only too well. Research shows that 71% of start-ups will no longer be operating ten years on from their launch. Often, especially for those ‘Digital Disruptors’ hoping to turn pre-existing markets on their heads, there is a strong temptation to overestimate the significance of small improvements. It may be, for example, that developing a Deliveroo-style service for pharmaceuticals would be genuinely helpful and easier for consumers; but the most important question is whether your audience will appreciate the difference. Most people are happy to make an occasional trip to the pharmacy to pick up a prescription, and in the case of the infirm – home visits already exist. Not all improvements are equal, since some will be noticed more than others.
It isn’t just in the world of pioneering start-ups that such mistakes are made either. Google may be one of the great successes of innovative entrepreneurship, but even they sometimes overestimate their ability to improve on the work of others. Take ‘Knol’ for example – an attempt by Google to develop an online community encyclopaedia which might rival Wikipedia; its creators believed that they had created a superior site, one that would solve some of Wikipedia’s perceived shortcomings. Google believed that the differences between their site and Wikipedia’s were significant steps forward; Knol encouraged sole authorship of articles instead of collaborative editing and writing, improving accountability and expertise. Sadly, this did not convince many internet users themselves. Having launched in 2008, Knol was discontinued in 2012.
With any creative project, it is possible to expect too much from the details, to confuse the success of small things with the overall success of a project. But the Victorian textile designer (and political theorist) William Morris can be held up as an example of someone who understood crucial detail. In a growing age of mass-production, his wallpaper designs were carefully planned to produce more intricate and pleasing repetitions across large wall spaces when compared to more austere factory designs. Greater care over the borders of his prints made the difference in how attractive his designs were to the eye.
Contrast this with the example of Mike Jeffries, former CEO of Abercrombie and Fitch who was famously fastidious about every in-store detail. In the midst of the 2008-09 financial crisis, Jeffries announced the launch of a new lingerie brand, Gilly Hicks, with stores opening across the United States. During the development process, they tried using antique Parisian stone for the shop flooring – later jackhammering it up when they realised it wouldn’t work. Money was wasted on expensive niceties before a single store opened and, in 2013, all of its lingerie stores were permanently closed.
Getting the level of detail right can be tough, but there are ways to keep things in check. It’s not quite enough to ask – ‘How can I make this better?’. The question which has to follow is: ‘How much difference will it make if I do?