Pay attention to details

The o-rings that caused the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster

The o-rings that caused the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster

Sometimes, when I consider what tremendous consequences come from small things, I am tempted to think…there are no small things. — Barton

The Space Shuttle Challenger disaster occurred when it broke apart 73 seconds into its flight, leading to the deaths of seven crew members. Disintegration began after an O-ring seal in its right solid rocket booster failed at liftoff. The O-ring failure caused a breach in the SRB joint it sealed, allowing pressurized burning gas from within the solid rocket motor to reach the outside and impinge upon the adjacent SRB aft field joint attachment hardware and external fuel tank.

Details are important.

  • Disastrous things can happen when we neglect details — Challenger disaster.
  • Great artists are obsessed with details — Ernest Hemingway wrote 47 endings to A Farewell to Arms.
  • The health of personal relationships often hinges on small courtesies — a friend called me last week to ask about a project I’m working on; I was so pleased that he remembered.
  • When writing, details are essential. There’s a difference between “I’m going to eat, Mom” and “I’m going to eat Mom.”

Charles Eames, the famous American architect and furniture designer, once said, “The details are not the details. They make the design.” Everything is composed of details so every detail is important.

I used to pride myself on my disregard for details, thinking that I was a “big picture” guy who was too concerned with macro issues to worry about micro ones. I was wrong. Being detail-oriented and maintaining a broad view are not mutually exclusive. We can and should do both.

A friend of mine, who was the personal assistant to Mr. Carl Sewell, a successful luxury car dealer in Dallas, told me an interesting story. One day my friend heard Mr. Sewell talking on the phone with the president of General Motors about global issues affecting the automobile industry: financial markets, the price of oil, the impact of China on American automakers, etc. When Mr. Sewell finished the call, he straightaway walked to the parts department and asked, “Have we received the bumper for Ms. Johnson’s Escalade?” Mr. Sewell constantly and successfully negotiated both minutia and massive issues.

Often, big doors swing on small hinges. The space vehicle Mariner 1, destined for Mars, suddenly veered off course and into oblivion. A single hyphen was inadvertently left out of the data fed into its guidance system and that was the cause of its regrettable fate.

[Since we’re talking about details, here’s a detailed description of the error: The error occurred when a symbol was being transcribed by hand in the specification for the guidance program. The writer missed the superscript bar which meant “the nth smoothed value of the time derivative of a radius R”. Since the smoothing function indicated by the bar was left out of the specification for the program, the implementation treated normal minor variations of velocity as if they were serious, causing spurious corrections that sent the rocket off course.]

Pay attention to details.

Question: What are you thoughts about this topic? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

What? – Details are important.
So what? – Be detail-oriented. Sweat the small stuff.
Now what? – Analyze yourself. Do you pay attention to details? Become more adept at this. Remember that “close enough” rarely is.

Leaders – Organizational excellence depends on being obsessed with details. Is this part of your organization’s culture?

Sometimes, fake it

fakeit7.001There are times when I am so unlike myself that I might be taken for someone else of an entirely opposite character. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Confessions, 1782

Last night Mary and I hosted our neighborhood’s monthly dinner party. From 7:00 to 11:00 p.m. our home was filled to capacity with people.

I struggle at these events because I am the archetypal introvert. My idea of a good evening is to sequester myself in my study and read a book. I would rather chew on cut glass than have to be “on” for four hours at a social event.

But last night I played the part. I was a gregarious, talkative, engaging host.

Was I being disingenuous and hypocritical? I don’t think so, because sometimes we need to act like someone we’re not. Psychologists have a term for this: counter-dispositional behavior.

I learned this lesson from psychology professor Brian Little’s book titled Me, Myself, and Us: The Personality and the Art of Well-Being. Little teaches a large, popular psychology course at Harvard. Though he is an introvert, his teaching style is very animated and energetic, so much so that his students are always surprised to hear him admit that when he’s teaching, he’s also acting. Little explains and defends his behavior in chapter three of his book: Free Traits: On Acting Out of Character.

I’m a big proponent of authenticity; we all need to discover how we are unique, accept the distinctions, and live authentically. Be your true self because therein lies deep satisfaction. Long term, you cannot sustain inauthentic behavior. But in the short term you can, and sometimes should, fake it.

Dr. Little says there are two main reasons why counter-dispositional behavior is often necessary — for professional reasons and for love.

If certain aspects of your work require you to be someone you’re not, have the emotional fortitude to play the part. For instance, if you’re a salesperson you may need to be more animated than your real self would normally be. Likewise, if for the love of family and friends you need to put aside your true self and temporarily assume a new persona, do so.

Last night I was an extroverted host. I did it because I love my neighbors and wanted them to feel welcomed and affirmed during their brief stay in our home. I couldn’t maintain that image 24/7, but I did for 247 minutes. Granted, it was exhausting, and when the last guest left, I went to my study, pulled out a book, and resumed my normal identity.

Question: What are you thoughts about this topic? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

What? – Sometimes we must adapt our behavior to meet the demands of the moment. This is not being insincere; it’s being smart and at times, loving.
So what? – We need to embrace this concept and know when to engage in it.
Now what? – Identify times in your life when it would be advantageous for you to engage in counter-dispositional behavior, and start doing so.

Leaders – Identify times in which your leadership position may require you to act in a way that is unnatural to you. Talk to your team members about this principle and how it can enhance their productivity.

Play hurt

complainIn the world of athletics, the phrase playing hurt is used to describe an athlete who continues to play even though he or she is injured. It also describes a necessary life skill that we all need to develop—sometimes we must continue to function, despite pain and adversity.

Here are some interesting thoughts from an article by Peggy Noonan that appeared in the Wall Street Journal, January 11, 2002.

“There’s a small but telling scene in Ridley Scott’s ‘Black Hawk Down’ that contains some dialogue that reverberates, at least for me. In the spirit of Samuel Johnson, who said man needs more often to be reminded than instructed, I offer it to all, including myself, who might benefit from its message.

“The movie, as you know, is about the Battle of the Bakara Market in Mogadishu, Somalia, in October 1993. In the scene, the actor Tom Sizemore, playing your basic tough-guy U.S. Army Ranger colonel, is in charge of a small convoy of humvees trying to make its way back to base under heavy gun and rocket fire. The colonel stops the convoy, takes in some wounded, tears a dead driver out of a driver’s seat, and barks at a bleeding sergeant who’s standing in shock nearby:

  • Colonel: Get into that truck and drive.
  • Sergeant: But I’m shot, Colonel.
  • Colonel: Everybody’s shot, get in and drive.”

Everybody’s been shot. Everyone’s been wounded. All of us have suffered a deep bruise. It’s one thing we all have in common.

But don’t think your wound gives you permission to sit on the sidelines; it doesn’t exempt you from fully engaging in life and being responsible for outcomes.

Don’t be defined by your wound and don’t let it put you on the bench. When life demands it, play hurt.

I saw this steely resolve displayed in church one Sunday morning. Moments before the worship service started, my pastor received some tragic news about a member of his family. I watched with amazement as he carried out his duties (even preaching a sermon) with grace and dignity, never letting on to the emotional turmoil that was going on inside.

There will be times in your life when you must play hurt. You’ll need to clamp down on physical or emotional discomfort and continue to perform. That’s not denial; it’s courage, control, and fortitude in action.

Question: What are your thoughts about this topic? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

What? – Often, we must continue to function despite hardships.
So what? – Develop the emotional fortitude to play hurt.
Now what?

Frame effectively

frameIn their must-read book, ethics [for the real world] authors Howard and Korver tell a winsome story that illustrates the importance of proper framing.

Two monks who were heavy smokers would often smoke and pray together in the evening. They became concerned that their smoking habit was a sin. So they each asked their superior for guidance.
They met again the next day. The first was puffing away when the second arrived. “But the head of the monastery told me it was a sin,” protested the second. “What did you ask him?” said the first. “I asked him if it was all right to smoke during our evening prayer, and he said no.”
“Well,” said the first monk, “I asked if it was all right to pray during our evening smoke, and he said it was just fine.”

In the social sciences, framing refers to a set of concepts and theoretical perspectives on how individuals, groups, and societies organize, perceive, and communicate about reality. With the same information being used as a base, the “frame” surrounding an issue can change the perception without altering the actual facts.

  • A “95% effective” condom appears more effective than one with a “5% failure rate.”
  • People prefer to take a 5% raise when inflation is 12% than take a 7% cut when inflation is zero.
  • When purchasing ground beef, most people would pick the one labeled, “80% lean” over the one labeled, “20% fat.”

Consider two applications of this information.

Don’t be tricked by misleading frames; focus on the facts. Remember, our minds react to the context in which something is embedded, not just to the thing itself, so always focus on the facts.

When communicating to others, consider how you’re going to frame what you want to say. When is the best time to speak? Who is your audience and how can you tweak your message to best appeal to this group? What is best left unsaid?

I’m not endorsing manipulation; we need to be straightforward and guileless in communicating with others. I am suggesting that we be thoughtful, prudent, and wise in both what we say and how we say it.

Here’s a final illustration of the power of framing. In his terrific book, Me, Myself, and Us, Professor Brian Little describes an experiment he conducts with his psychology students. He asks each student to form spittle in his or her mouth and then swallow it. They do so without hesitation. Then he asks the students to once again form spittle in their mouths but this time he tells them to put the saliva into a small plastic cup. He then asks them to swallow the spit in the cup. They refuse. Why? Framing.

Question: What are your thoughts about this topic? You can leave a comment by clicking here.


What? – The way in which something is presented greatly influences how people perceive and receive it.
So what? – 1. Be leery of being misled and manipulated by shrewd framing. 2. When communicating with others, carefully consider how you frame what you want to say.
Now what? – The next time you communicate something important to an individual or group, create several frames that could be used and then choose the best one.

Leaders – Intelligent framing can enhance your communication, PR, sales, and marketing. But avoid being manipulative.