Sunday, June 20, 2010

God Is in the Details

Strangely enough, there are two famous quotations about details. One says that God is in the details. The other says that the Devil is in the details. Not surprisingly, they are not saying the same thing.

The first suggests that if you look closely at the intricacies of a thing or a problem you will find God. The second means that if you try to work out an agreement down to the last detail you will start having devilish difficulties.

I could have used either proverb as the title of this post. Given that it's Sunday and Father's Day, my better judgment recommended siding with God.

History credits Flaubert with, "God is in the details." Prize winning physicist and wise man Richard Feynman suggested two possible meanings. The first: "nearly everything is interesting enough if you go into it deeply enough." The second: "No problem is too small or too trivial if we really do something about it." Link here.

Feynman's first interpretation says that if you put in the time and energy to get into the details of a problem you will be rewarded. This is another way of saying that virtue-- here the virtue of a work ethic-- yields rewards. Even if the only reward is that the problem or the thing will thoroughly engage your interest.

Feynman's second interpretation offers sound advice. It implies that we should not dismiss problems as too small or too trivial for our attention. We should try to solve them. Problems are there to be solved, not to be ignored.

Small problems solved do not become large problems. When you are too lazy to look into small problems, or when you think that they are beneath your pay grade, they are much more likely to become large problems. Leave a small problem alone to fester and it will eventually turn into a crisis that is beyond your ability to control.

When we come to the adage, the Devil is in the details, we are dealing with something quite different. I hesitate to say that it is simply a polar opposite of the saying about God.

People say that the Devil is in the details when they are talking about an agreement between two parties. The parties might agree on the larger outline of the agreement, or on basic principles, but when it comes to applying those principles to specific situations, they find themselves at loggerheads.

How do you solve a problem when the Devil is in the details? By being detail oriented, by paying close attention to each small aspect of the agreement. You have to love detail and you have to master detail to avoid the problems that arise when negotiation moves into specifics. Someone who thinks that all the real work has been done when two parties arrive at an agreement in principle is simply not doing his job.

When we enter the realm of details there are no short cuts. It's all hard work, and it's all about putting in the extra time.

I would add a point that we can witness in the news every day. Having a command of the details of the situation is essential for leadership and effective management.

Being in charge means knowing, in detail, what is going on. It does not means mouthing platitudes or shifting blame to others.

When you say that you are responsible for handling a crisis, you are obliged to demonstrate a command of the details. The most relevant example today is Gov. Bobby Jindal's management of the Gulf crisis. Jindal is extremely oriented toward detail.

On the other side, our president disappointed even his most fervent supporters by failing to show any command of the details in a scripted address to the nation. When you can't put details in a script, you are seriously disinterested in them.

And then, we have the CEO of BP, Tony Hayward, who testified before a Congressional committee a few days ago and could not answer any specific or detailed questions about the oil gushing out of a broken pipe on the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico.

When it comes to public hearings, we all know that Congresspeople are all grandstanding and no substance. And yet, if Hayward had wanted to neutralize the theatrics of the hearing he could simply have shown that he had studied the situation and mastered the facts. He did not have to offer solutions; he did not have to affix blame. But he should certainly not have kept passing the buck, trying to wash his hands of theproblem by stating that people on a lower level of the corporate hierarchy were making the decisions.

Slogging your way through the details serves another useful purpose. It diminishes your tendency to jump to a conclusion, to construct a narrative that comprises some, but not all, of the facts, and to shift the blame to your enemies or your underlings.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You have to love detail and you have to master detail to avoid the problems that arise when negotiation moves into specifics.

Or you just hafta hate the devil:

I despise getting tricked.

The dishonest tricks, the devilish tricks are in the seemingly innocuous details:

"Let us quit this heaven-bound station and consort with God's most favored on earth."

"Really, we are performing Godly duties keeping an eye on them for Him....."

"Since the woman has shared this great knowledge with her husband ,and people, and she has borne us a son: The Nephilim"

"Take all the wives of which you will, slaughter the men if they resist. Teach the women and their sons the Old Ways; the ways of Heaven that they may become Gods of this earth."

"Our sons will be 13 els.... How they are loved and exhalted as the killers they are. They will drink oceans of blood while holding this Earth in God's Thrall...."

Our divining says it is raining; that it will rain the black rain for 40 days. No man, nor animal will survive this, but even if drowned, we lay in faithless depths not dead but dreaming.

Stoop not down into the darkly splendid world; wherein lies a faithless Depth and Hades wrapped in clouds, delighting in unintelligible images, precipitous, winding, a black and ever-rolling Abyss, ever showing a Body unluminous, formless and void.

Yes. The devil is in the details. That old trickster....