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January 20, 2011 10:06 AM   Subscribe

I'm a details-oriented guy. It seems that most people in management positions (who I assume are the ones making the big bucks) mostly talk in vague generalities. Can I, the details guy, move up make the big bucks too? Will that require rewiring myself not to sweat the details?

As an analyst, it's my job to sweat the small stuff, and I'm pretty good at it. Fewer clicks, better placement of a column, and a few fewer steps in a workflow add up to a big differences for our end users. I'm pretty good at that. The problem is, there doesn't seem to be anywhere for me to go - it seems that if I continue on this path I'll just be doing the same things and getting the same salary for the rest of my life.

When I look at the people above me in the org chart, who I assume are making more than me, they don't seem to be details people. They seem to focus on generalities. They seem to focus on things that seem painfully obvious and uselessly broad ("Let's focus on automating the process and improving user satisfaction!"). Yet they all seem to be on the same page, and they all seem think these discussions are helpful and important. I want to be part of these 'important' conversations, mostly because that seems to be the way to advance my career, but it's like there's some subtext to all of these obvious statements that I'm not privy to.

When managers talk vaguely about user experience, I want them to pipe down so I can explain the specific issues around search results. I think I'll be ill if I hear another uninformed "leader"make vague remarks about users' feelings without discussing specific issues. I'd rather say "here is exact problem and here is the solution." Which makes me a great analyst, but seems to disqualify me from leadership roles.

Is there a way for a details person to move up the ranks? Or will I have to change the way I think? If so - how should I start thinking?

In these seemingly-vague discussions, what am I missing? Is vagueness rewarded, or am I misunderstanding what is being said?

I've been complimented on my ability to make issues to everyone, so I don't think that I'm getting bogged down in too-technical discussions. There just seems to be a higher level of discussion that I'm not tuned in to.

(Let's avoid discussions of whether salary is a good career goal. Just take it at face value that it's the goal for this question).
posted by Tehhund to Work & Money (25 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
Data point: I had a details-oriented boss. She was what we generously called a micro-manager from hell.

I think that being a good boss means both knowing the details AND the generalities. And allowing the other people to do their work, and not getting aggravated when they don't do it EXACTLY the way you might have done it. This makes some people crazy (i.e., me), but others are able to let it roll off their back and concentrate on the big picture stuff.
posted by Melismata at 10:12 AM on January 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

Every good manager I've had has been details orientated. But they also understood the big picture and understand that the people under them can and should be paying attention to the "how and why".

It's potentially the way they communicate, not the way they think.
posted by sandmanwv at 10:19 AM on January 20, 2011

My impression of higher-ups, reinforced by dealing with retired higher-ups who feel they can be candid in their retirement:

1) Good leaders are capable of seeing not only the situation from within their specific shop, but from the point of view of others. This takes time and experience to master, as near as I can tell.
2) Leaders are strategic, meaning they focus on details that they feel will have an impact on future operating of the business, etc. If you're providing an e-service whose popularity (and therefore profitability) is driven by how user-friendly it is, then of course the leaders will focus on user interface and making things look as pretty as possible. They will trust the details of the search results to guys like you, unless it becomes a business-killing issue requiring them to focus on that.
3) Leaders know how to get to the heart of an issue, temporarily ignoring (or delegating downwards) the details that distract them from focusing on the real issue.

So, I think, as a detail-oriented person, you *could* train yourself to rise in the ranks. Use your detail-oriented-ness to your advantage. Learn to be able to identify what the issue is, and to isolate the details that cut to the heart of the matter.

Good luck!
posted by LN at 10:23 AM on January 20, 2011 [4 favorites]

You could simplify, hiding the fact that you know tons of details behind the scenes.

You could create visualizations that present your argument at a glance while simultaneously making clear that you know the details.

A friend of mine told me that a new staff member at her school collected all the gossip and bitching that was flying around and turned it into a graph. Which clearly showed that 3% of staff were loudly bitching about the timetables, but 48% were satisfied and some other percent thought that only x needed to be changed. This had the dual effect of taking the emotion out of it and turning it into an issue that could be addressed rationally, and showing that loud people do not necessarily represent the majority.

So that would be an example of someone taking a lead while still being analytical and persuasive.
posted by tel3path at 10:24 AM on January 20, 2011

Don't think of it as vagueness. Those higher-ups are talking "big picture" language. What sounds vague to you, is dense with meaning for them. It's a short form. Find a mentor who can teach you what the big picture is so you can start thinking in those terms, too.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 10:25 AM on January 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

I would guess the vague discussions are at the level of strategy, rather than implementation. Once the strategy is decided, the leadership guides the team to work towards this goal. The details of how to achieve this strategy are for each team and leader to work out on their own -- not relevant to the discussions among the high-level leadership. Do you know the strategy of your organization? Maybe this is the subtext you're missing.
posted by PercussivePaul at 10:31 AM on January 20, 2011

Best answer: "Is vagueness rewarded, or am I misunderstanding what is being said?"

You're misunderstanding. They set a broad strategy, then delegate the details to folks like you to work those details out. Some managers understand all the details they oversee; other managers may not but understand how to judge the final product; others may understand best how to hire good people and set good processes in place. (Of course, it's possible you work in a place where everyone just speaks management jargon to cover for the fact that they HAVE no strategy.)

To give a very simple example, I'm on an elected school board, and we provide strategic direction, but the specifics are the responsibility of our professional staff to create and carry out. I think it's more clear in this situation, where the "top management" is elected schmoes who may or may not have any knowledge of the DETAILS of educating children. So we say, "Clearly we need a stronger math curriculum in the elementary grades" and they go and actually create that. We don't say, "... involving X, Y, and Z in grade 1, and utilizing this testing method in grade 2 ..." No. We hire the right people to DO that right, and then give them the strategic mandate.

Personally, I find it hard not to nerd out on curriculum, as it's an area I know a fair amount about and I love to read about, but that's not my role. That would just be interfering in what they're doing. So instead, after we're presented with the new curriculum, I take a few minutes to talk to the math curriculum director to say how delighted I am to see the new algebra programs they're including because I'm very excited about this method and it's definitely the best practice. That way I'm not interfering or telling her how to do her job, but hopefully letting the math curriculum director know I appreciate her work from a place of understanding it ... which is nicer than appreciating someone's work without really knowing what it's about. :)

But a big part of managing in a larger organization is knowing what NOT to do and how to trust your subordinates.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:38 AM on January 20, 2011 [3 favorites]

Maybe there are ways for you to move sideways instead of up. You're good at explaining the details -- so become a trainer? Write a manual? Become an aid to somebody higher-up who needs you do to the detail work? Move to a different job where you're the only details guy, and hence can command a higher salary? Move into a different industry (start-up?) where the details skills are more highly valued because you're creating something new? Similarly, any slight tweaks to your skillset that would allow you to be more of a creator than a fixer/analyzer?
posted by yarly at 10:50 AM on January 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for the answers - they're tremendously helpful. As you can probably guess, "am I misunderstanding what is being said?" was partly rhetorical, but the details on what I'm missing are very helpful.

If anyone can provide some more details on what goes into strategic considerations, I'd like to hear it. To me, it seems obvious: consumers want apps? Give them user-friendly apps! The government is subsidizing these products? Make a qualifying product! I guess I don't understand why it takes years of experience to understand these strategic directions, and that's why these discussions seem simple to the point of uselessness.
posted by Tehhund at 10:59 AM on January 20, 2011

A command of detail is not a bad thing to have when you are managing. To take an example tangentially related to yours, my group had to figure out a problem about a device's key-feel that was communicated in vague terms (as are a lot of user-experience problems). As manager I had to form some ideas about the approach to the problem and I might have been able to solve it a little faster than my group, but that was not my role: first, the team had to figure out which attributes mattered to the result, and then they had to figure out how to implement and test it. My role was to give some guidance about which attributes were likely to bear on the key-feel, how to test, how to know when the group was done, and then to get the hell out of the way. Advantages to doing that were allowing the group to come up with solutions I might not have thought of, to experience the difficulty of balancing cost, assembly difficulty and changes to the system, and to see the mini-project as a whole from the inside.

More globally, having been in the trenches for a good long time gives you the ability to form a quick impression of the rightness or wrongness of an approach or architecture without the need to explain exactly why it seems that way, at least at first. There are places where the fishing is better than others and knowing where to start is harder than knowing how to bait the hook.
posted by jet_silver at 11:07 AM on January 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

Elf work. Everything's elf work to someone. One of my first gigs out of school, I was an assistant at a big law firm. Lawyers would give me tasks and deadlines, and mostly it was fine but sometimes it was not, and I was sometimes frustrated when I tried to explain why a given deadline was unreasonable (or impossible) and they just didn't seem to get it. You'd find yourself launching into these long explanations, like "well, by the time the library digs that stuff out of the archives it'll be past 4 which means we'll have to use the printing company across town who do rush jobs but they won't deliver here tomorrow until 11 and..." and you'd see their eyes glaze and eventually I realized that everything I did was pretty much Elf Work to them. As in the fable of the shoemaker and the elves: all they knew is that they were handing me some leather and they expected to see shoes on their desks the next morning. They had no idea whether that required me to spend 12 hours peering at a tiny needle until my eyes turned to dust or whether I could whip out my magic wand and ping! Shoes. And they didn't care.

And they weren't really supposed to. It wasn't their job to care. While I'm glad my job now is not a 100 percent elfwork gig, every job had some. And everyone resents feeling like the elf.

So to my mind I don't think it's a question of details vs. Generalities. I think it more, figuring out if you care about the kinds of details you'd have to deal with in a management position, which will have a lot less to do with aesthetics and helping end users and a lot more to do with budgets, prioritizing projects, smoothing over interpersonal conflicts and figuring out how to get your own way. Management is politics.
posted by Diablevert at 11:22 AM on January 20, 2011 [5 favorites]

If anyone can provide some more details on what goes into strategic considerations, I'd like to hear it. To me, it seems obvious: consumers want apps? Give them user-friendly apps! The government is subsidizing these products? Make a qualifying product!

Uh, no. That's not strategy; that's throwing stuff at a wall that happens to be in view and hoping it sticks.

Strategy (disambiguation)

Strategy is big-picture thinking -- seeing how various factors might be related now or in the future, and making choices accordingly. Strategic thinking is about getting your organization to roughly the right place at roughly the right time to achieve some goal. It's about imagination, prediction, investment and risk (and, on preview, politics), and if it seems vague, that's at least partly because the future is rather difficult to see into.

Which is not to say that everyone who gets a management job is actually good at it.
posted by jon1270 at 11:38 AM on January 20, 2011

Best answer: My two pennies:

I think different levels of management require different kinds of detail orientation in different things e.g. An SAP project manager in IBM may be very hands on, the one in SAP America may be more of a generalist (just making a hypothetical point rather than saying it is so). A typical CEO of a retail corp. won't not have the details of IT infrastructure on his fingertips, but will likely have as nuanced an understanding of the balance sheet as anybody else. So it is also a function of what you need to focus on to do the most critical parts of your job responsibilities.

Some jobs require a lot of external communication to outside stakeholders and/or a lot of strategy development activities leaving very little capacity for operational functions. When that happens, people need to pick and choose. The key is hiring the right people so that you can afford trust the 90000 ft view that your lieutenants are giving you. It is also true that some people just aren't terribly good at operations and some people are better with strategy development or relationship management (e.g. Axelrod - from what I read - was apparently at something of a loss in terms managing/driving the team at a detail level, where was Hillary who was faring much worse initially with the gargantuan state dept bureaucracy is supposed doing much better now)

I think most really good senior executes have the ability to drill down and execute at a much lower level of granularity (specially if they have come up thru the ranks, rather than parachuted in) but they choose to work at the 90k ft level (both because they have a much larger span of control and because there are other things that they have to do).

Having said that, the ability to both see the "big picture" and to articulate the "big picture" is a skill. It comes naturally to some people. Some people need to learn it. There are others who are basically sophisticated bullshit artists, but you usually know it when you see one. Like everywhere else, there is mediocrity in most workplaces.

If you have been doing a very detail oriented job for a long time, you may need to learn this. I dont know whether this works for you - but if you try to think in terms of how would you want to communicate an idea to someone completely outside your domain - this may help frame your thoughts better (think of how "The Economist" writes up stories. They presuppose very little prior knowledge on the part of the reader). Not sure if this makes sense.

I do think it can be a a somewhat difficult transition (when you transition from being the nuts and bolts guy to being more of a generalist). I certainly struggle trying to strike the right balance ...
posted by justlooking at 11:55 AM on January 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

Make no mistake: a lot of management types drink deeply from the management-speak B-school kool-aid wells, and there really is a lot of utter nonsense out there. But as has been said before, managers, if they're going to be any good, do need to be able to deal with the big picture.

Sure, you know what the specific problem is and how to fix it. Good for you. They know that your solution to the problem causes problems for three other departments, and it's their job to come up with a solution which works for everybody. A competent manager handles those sort of big-picture things--really just a different level of detail--without getting bogged down in the level of detail required to technically implement a problem while sharing with his underlings enough of the big picture so that they can do their jobs effectively.

My last manager completely sucked at that, which is one of the reasons I moved on. There are some people who, if you give them a task which involves careful attention to exacting detail, can just bang that shit right out. Organizations need those people. But they also need people who can write said lists, or decide which lists are going to be worked on, by whom, and when.

Really though, it sounds like you're dealing with the "S/N" dichotomy in Myers-Briggs. A lot of management types, particularly the good ones, are relatively pronounced "N" personalities. Sounds like you're a classic "S". Each can be infuriating to the other, but organizations really do need both to thrive.
posted by valkyryn at 1:11 PM on January 20, 2011

Best answer: "The government is subsidizing these products? Make a qualifying product!"

Does this product fit into our existing line? Will we be able to charge at a competitive price-point? Is it an underserved field where there would be high demand, or a glutted field where we'd be one among a thousand? When the government subsidy runs out, will we still be able to make a profit on it? Will the costs that go into developing the product be recouped before the subsidy runs out? Will 8,000 other similar firms being doing the same thing we are to take advantage of the subsidy and, if so, what sets us apart?

To return to my school board example, yeah, what you're suggesting as "big picture" thinking is actually just "throw things at the wall, hope something sticks" -- which was a strategy that prior boards and administrations to mine followed for nearly 20 years in our struggling, high-poverty urban district. Here's a new strategy someone tried that worked for some poor schools! Let's implement that at three schools! Let's implement something entirely different at these two! Now lets feed these five into the same high school so none of these students are coming in with the same background and we can't sort them into classes properly! Let's kill ALL those programs and start over at the high school level! Oh, crap, now we have five elementary schools with no comprehensive curriculum ... let's lease them to a private entity that may or may not deliver what it promises. Ooooh, the federal government is offering $16 million if we fire our principal and 50% of our teachers and the program makes no sense for the school we're looking at, but SIXTEEN MILLION DOLLARS IS A LOT! Let's do that! Oh, crap, it's 3 years later and that's made no difference but we managed to alienate large parts of the community by firing people for no reason. Let's, um, change direction again so none of our 11th graders will have the credits they need to graduate because we keep changing programs!

I mean, basically, as a high-poverty urban district, we have a nearly-infinite number of problems, some of which aren't even remotely in our control. We have EXTREMELY limited funding. 20 years of "let's solve all the problems at once, willy nilly!" worked very badly and drove us into debt. Now the management (the Board and the administrative cabinet) are having to say, "What are our biggest problems? Which of those are within our control? Should we address problem X, and if so, what is the particular outcome we'd like to see?" And then you have to stand firm on the fact that you are focusing on A, B, and C, and not on the entire alphabet's worth of problems, EVEN THOUGH that means some problems are going unsolved (or, in your case perhaps, some opportunities are going unexploited).

The sorts of questions/problems/opportunities/etc. varies a great deal by industry, of course, but you probably get the idea.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 1:29 PM on January 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

I recently picked up the "manager" portion of my title, and all I can say is that the job of a manager is not to provide solutions, but rather to ensure resources are in place to provide solutions, and that they're heading in the right direction, and then to remove any obstacles that stand in their way. You don't need details to be a good manager, in fact, they get in the way sometimes.
posted by blue_beetle at 3:04 PM on January 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Good managers are ALWAYS detail oriented. Just not the SAME details as you are.

Maybe this is an analogy that complicates it more than clarifies it, but maybe not. Think of an aircraft carrier. There is The Captain. His job is to make sure the boat goes where it is supposed to and does what it is supposed to do, because for him, the details are that he needs to fit into the bigger picture of the battle plan. The admiral set some goals for him, and he has to figure out the details.

You work down the chain of command, and each manager has his details. Seaman Cumstein is the best deck-swabber on the ship, but he is going to be promoted next month, so his boss better put the other guys through their paces to figure out who needs to be trained. The engine room guy needs to figure out when to change the oil, so he needs out find out when it can be done, and then order the right oil, and then make sure people are on duty to be able to change the oil.

Another mental framework might be orders of magnitude, or a pyramid. Each level is supported by the lower levels doing a lot more work than the levels above could accomplish on their own.

So, in the example of the micro-managing boss, they fail because they are concentrating on the wrong details. They aren't actually detail oriented- they are likely ignoring their own work.

Example: I was getting gas at 9:30am yesterday (work starts at 8:30), and the CEO of my company happened to roll up next to me to also get gas. We exchanged plesantries- he doesn't know who I am, but he does know I work for him and in what department- and that was it. There was no panicked call from my boss an hour later demanding to know what I was doing at the gas station during work hours. Because the CEO knows that the various layers of management in between are doing their jobs, and that the department is profitable. He didn't need to waste his time dropping a dime because those aren't his details. He knows that I surely had a good reason, or I would get caught sneaking in late, because he has people for that.

In other words, you have to learn different things to be detail oriented about.

(And the opposite is true too: a good boss should always reserve the right to get down into the nitty gritty. Not to be a micro-manager, but to better understand what is going on. The skill of management is knowing when to ignore and when to get involved. Another tip is to never "manage at" a lower, lower tier. If the line people aren't doing their thing, you go talk to their boss. You never call them out specifically, unless it is an emergency.)
posted by gjc at 4:29 PM on January 20, 2011 [3 favorites]

I'm reminded of Don Rumsfeld's recollection of 9/11. His instinct was the natural human emergency instinct- go all hands on deck, pull people out of rubble, grab a fire extinguisher. He had to pull himself away from it, and remind himself that his priorities were elsewhere. Whatever he was doing, there was a guy standing behind him who could also be doing that. Meanwhile, there were platoons of people searching for him, who could be doing something more productive.
posted by gjc at 4:34 PM on January 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

Tehhund: "I guess I don't understand why it takes years of experience to understand these strategic directions, and that's why these discussions seem simple to the point of uselessness."

Part of it is financial / economic / accounting: every decision is measured in dollars, and if your business is funded in part by loans (or "commercial paper"), strategy affects rates in multifaceted ways. Tight deadlines lower rates, missing them 'spooks the market'. Time to market counts, so strategy requires not only knowing what customers want, but who else out there might beat you to the market and how you can adjust the plan to cope. For example, users constantly want cheaper cellphones, but Apple didn't go that route. Their strategy has been a strong brand and high margins, combined with closed door negotiations with carriers.

There are details oriented people in high level positions. Steve Jobs is (was) notorious for subjecting designs to his own frequent criticism, and Bill Gates does too. Partially, I think whether management is detail oriented or not is up to corporate culture from the top down: if the board isn't hiring detail oriented CEOs, the CEOs aren't going to be hiring detailed junior execs, and so on. Which grates at some point against internal promotion of people who do care about details. It's probably telling that my two best examples of detail oriented leaders were there from the start. Boards of Directors are just made of people, who can be fooled or corrupted just as easily as the rest of us. Maybe even more, given the stakes.
posted by pwnguin at 4:43 PM on January 20, 2011

Oh, and there's no short of bad or clueless managers. Participating in vague conversations with them won't advance your career. What will advance your career is great results you can put on your resume, and helping the people around you do the same. When they give you vague ideas, that's your chance to offer up a specific idea you'd love to see on your resume.
posted by pwnguin at 5:06 PM on January 20, 2011

There is indeed a danger that they will think of you as a "detail only" guy. This is especially so if your "superiors" were never in your shoes, and don't really appreciate or understand what you are doing. In the latter case they may unconsciously devalue what you are doing, and at the same time assume there is nothing more that you can do. In IT/technology, I've noticed that the further away from the problem you are, the easier it is to do especially as perceived by those who haven't been there before.

Random suggestions:

Continue to sweat the details but make it seem like you are not sweating. If you are working long hours, don't make a big deal out of that (don't know that you are). In other words, try to make it seem easy.

When you talk/write/present to your superiors, do it in compact summary form. Think and explain in terms of the end results and in terms of the BENEFITS to the end parties, not how you got there, and not the technicalities. If there are multiple options to explain, limit yourself to a couple of them if possible.

Practice saying what you need to say in N minutes or less.

"I think I'll be ill if I hear another uninformed "leader" make vague remarks about users' feelings without discussing specific issues. I'd rather say "here is exact problem and here is the solution." Your response should bridge the gap between their gut feel description and physical reality. For example, let's say that user's find that a screen/web page is confusing. Your response after due analysis should be something like: "OK - I've got a redesigned screen that users should find friendlier - mainly I removed three fields and notched up the font size. Please see your email for details and for a couple of other options.

Provide detailed information as backup material. This provides you with some limited "cover" if things go wrong. More importantly, it let's them know that there was work underlying your end product, presented in summary form, and you are saving them trouble of having to deal with all that detail.

Hope there is something useful for you here. Lot's of good suggestions from other posters. I am certainly very sympathetic to your dilemma, having worked on both sides of the divide.

Best of luck
posted by Kevin S at 6:36 PM on January 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

To me, it seems obvious: consumers want apps? Give them user-friendly apps!

What resources and capabilities do we need to give them user-friendly apps, and how do we best acquire and leverage them? How do we really know what the market wants? Why will they buy our apps rather than Company X's apps? Looks like Company Y is clobbering us in the market - what should we do? Company Z is entering the market - what does that mean? Should we be in apps at all? What's the next big thing? How obvious does it seem now?

Go read this. See the table of contents? That's what leaders think about.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 6:42 PM on January 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

gjc is right. They can only sweat the details of their job, not everyone else's. I guarantee you if those bigwigs were your direct supervisor or coworker for a week, they'd drive you up the wall with not being able to let small things go. I bet they do not put up with vagueness from the people who report directly to them, and similarly are not vague with the person they report to.

It's a natural thing, though, to gloss over stuff in conversation that you suspect is too complicated to really get into with someone who isn't doing the same thing. You don't really want to bore them with irrelevant details, or constantly be saying, "well, to explain that, we have to back up to understanding this, and to understand that..." So that might be where your impression of vagueness is coming from.
posted by ctmf at 6:47 PM on January 20, 2011

Just a quick thought: in my job, sometimes the detail, tech-oriented people aren't that good at communicating the value of what they do. Your thoughts about not wanting to be "stuck" at the detail level made me think of it.

For example, a colleague provides vital programming services to the rest of my workplace, but people really don't know what he does, as the rest of us aren't that technical. So people ask him to do projects with no idea as to whether it's a two hour or two week project, and he isn't good at communicating which is it and why. And then people don't really get the value of what he's done, when it's handed over.

And when he does make changes, he'll send out emails with the details (we fixed X, moved Y, and re-coded Z) without a nice summary sentence telling us how that benefits everyone (and now everyone's widget works faster). So he's sending out details (fixed X), when all anyone else cares about is the big picture (faster widget).

So this is a little tangential, but something I've noticed at work: when communicating their projects, the details people need to have a one-sentence summary of how much effort went into it, and how awesome it is for the organization, rather than a four-sentence summary of the technical specs.
posted by lillygog at 5:25 AM on January 21, 2011

(Sorry if that's off topic for your question, but at my workplace it seems to be something that holds the detail people back from moving up the organization, or at least being properly valued at the organization.)
posted by lillygog at 5:26 AM on January 21, 2011

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