People before business. Business before technology. Technology making people’s lives better.

We have heard the devil is in the details. This article is about getting technology right and not inviting the devil into our business, personal gadgets, or any other solutions we have the power to create or select. Some things here will appear to be obvious, but why do so many projects fail if they are obvious? Keeping the devil out means getting our details right!

We will be looking at keys to getting the details right, and the crucial importance in our workflow is the mindsets we hold as we journey through our filtering and prioritizing of details.

The Devils in the Details

What does this phrase mean? Too many details in focus, and we have a dangerous distraction. Too many details are out of focus, and we have blind spots that are also dangerous. Technology is all about details.

  • Android or Apple?
  • Gas or Electric Car?
  • Text or Email?

If you are old enough, you will remember the BlackBerry Phones. When they launched their product, they had it right. Unfortunately, their belief that they had it ‘so right,’ they let hubris take hold of the users and the company behind the phones. The way BlackBerry did things became the standard of right. If other phone companies did things differently, it was wrong. Here is a classic tale of where the iPhone and Android remembered the only constant in life is change.

Technology is always about change, or by definition, it is not technology! Or, if you want to be technical, cool, it is no longer considered state of the art. Putting wheels on a vehicle was so much better than something you loaded up and dragged behind yourself. We are still inventing better wheels, but just saying you have wheels on your vehicle is not currently considered technology. This includes wheels, bicycles, motors, electricity, planes, lightbulbs, and so much more.

The devil gets in when we forget about change or, like BlackBerry, create false barriers to change. Microsoft was in sharp decline before Satya Narayana Nadella became the new CEO. What a transformation he has brought to reverse the decline. Being a bit older and wiser, Steve Jobs also turned Apple around when it was in a much worse place than Microsoft.

Devils of Balance

When we look at technology as a balancing act, we are prone to get lost in the details, and only a narrow set of details matters. With an overly limited awareness, we lose the perspective to succeed.

Standard Disclaimer #1: Not all decisions are as narrow as a tight rope.

Balance on a tightrope and similar scenarios is a great illustration of when things matter. However, romanticizing the tightrope story to push pet details into a project or decision is argumentative and inappropriate. If the issue is that critical, then it is not romanticizing.

Standard Disclaimer #2: Productivity is not an excuse to ignore the road ahead.

Productivity is essential and a detail that should be included. However, it must be mixed with the essential journey and milestone details.

So if not balance, what is the framework we should use to think through the right filtering and selection of details? It is looking at boundaries in the plural. Most of the time, we think of boundaries as walls on a fort. Yes, that is a boundary, but the wrong kind of boundary if we want to think through details correctly.

We want to think through boundaries as sides of a bridge with no rails. What happens if you travel too far to the left? You fall off! What happens if you travel too far to the right? You fall off! In our pursuit of technology, we don’t have left and right as much as we must wrestle with two devils, legacy vs. innovation.

If the legacy devil controls your thinking, you fall behind, lose momentum, and like BlackBerry, you may fall off the market. The same is true for too much innovation. An interesting home builder, Buckminster Fuller, the creator of geodesic dome buildings, was known for another structure. The Dymaxion house. He would make progress, and that would bring new insights. The new insights were ways to make the house even better. This is where the innovation devil distracted him again and again. Buckminster Fuller failed to ship and iterate. The result is he ran out of funding. Ironically you can visit a working model of the Dymaxion house in the Ford Museum in Michigan.

Devils of Depth

When dating my wife, well, not my wife at that time, we toured the Sears Tower in Chicago. They explained the importance of building a deeper foundation for a taller building. It has been said that beauty is skin deep. I have heard of many buildings that focused on beauty and profit that were the cause of disaster after disaster. Too shallow a detail focus and the devil distracts us from putting a good foundation below our structures.

One of the more famous parables of Jesus is about a wise man building his house on a rock. He speaks of a foolish man building his house on the sand. His point is that that house will be in trouble when rain and winds come.

The structure inside that house, well, the building, is also very important. After 9-11, with the twin towers’ collapse in New York, we learned new ways to design tall buildings to make them more secure. I would not say the original designers failed. The truth is nobody knows all the future holds to challenge us. If we get focused on solving every scenario that the future holds, we will get lost in the same devil’s temptation as Buckminster Fuller did with the Dymaxion house.

Not Too Shallow

The truth about details tends to come in layers. Many of them. A good rule we try to follow here is to ask past our surface assumptions five levels deep in questions.

Customer: I want a smartphone.

Clerk: What do you want?

Customer: I want an Android

Clerk: Why?

Customer: Because my friends like their Android phones.

Clerk: (sighs to self) What did your friends like about their Android phones?

Customer: They said they don’t want to be stuck in a single vendor system.

Clerk: Android is controlled by Google? Are they talking about hardware? If so, do you want to look at phones not owned by Google?

Customer: I am not sure.

Clerk: Let’s start over. Why did you want a phone?

Android and iOS are both fantastic solutions. They both have tradeoffs. My point here is following the five questions; we often find out the real reason behind our choices or the lack of reason in some cases. Knowing the real reasons helps us do so much better at understanding the details that impact our decisions. In this case, the user may have simply wanted to make a safe decision.

Not Too Deep

In the above scenario, the clerk spotted the questions were going too deep. When that happens, it begins to feel more like an interrogation than a clerk getting the details right.

Devils of Skynet

I am sure many of my audience may not believe in devils. Even in that audience, many realize we can create our own devils with technology. The fictional company Skynet is known for this representation in the movie Terminator. What is technology about? Is Skynet just the evolution of man to the machine? As humans, we are biased to think otherwise.

Technology is about serving people. This is the most important detail of all. Simon Sinek stated that our business needs a profit to accomplish its mission, just like cars need fuel. If we lose sight and the priority of serving people, there are one of two possible outcomes. The less likely one is robots will take over the earth. The more likely one is the institutions we created will lose value, and with a primary focus on money, they will terminate themselves or go off the side of the bridge.

The common thread of business and technology has been to serve people better. Who are the people? They are the customers of the business and the workers of the business building a better future together. Serve the people to make today count without sacrificing tomorrow. Make tomorrow count without sacrificing today. These must both work for our work to work. These are the details that matter most.