Nitpick Your Way to Success

nitpicking 1013


It gets a bad rap.    

Some terrific leaders are praised for their nitpicking skills.  Steve Jobs was an expert nitpicker.

After all, isn’t nitpicking really about paying attention to the details?

Many famous people have weighed in on details:    

“It’s the little details that are vital. Little things make big things happen.”  John Wooden

“Never neglect details.  When everyone’s mind is dulled or distracted the leader must be doubly vigilant.”  Colin Powell

“God is in the details.”  Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

Details are important. There are some projects that, if you don’t nitpick, things will get out of hand.  

Case in point:  the original nitpicking project–dealing with head lice. 

My daughter, Miranda, has caught head lice at school three times in the last two years.   She’s been generous enough to share it with her brother, and even with her Mom.  So lice eradication has been a full-on team sport in our household.

Yet, even with the latest prescription shampoos, we’ve had to resort to getting rid of lice the old fashioned way:  to literally pick at nits.

It’s a mind-numbing, hours long slog that involves picking up only a few strands of hair at a time, combing and hunting for louse eggs that are nearly invisible to the naked eye.

It sucks.  

But you do it ’til you’re done, and here’s why:  Because missing one damn nit could mean complete re-infestation.  

Which means this lice thing will go on forever.  

Every nit matters.

So, if your work involves a similar level of detail orientation, then, by all means, nitpick away.

You’re my new accountant, and you’re getting me prepped for an audit with the IRS?  Please, nitpick, please!

You’re about to operate on my brain, and you have a specific protocol to follow to succeed?  Please, nitpick, please!

You run the maintenance check for the airplane I’m about to depart on?  Please, nitpick, please!

However, if your all your work doesn’t involve this detail, then maybe you don’t get the free nitpicking pass.

Details are important.  But not all details are equally as important.

To nitpick or not to nitpick? That is the question.

To uncover the answer, ask yourself:  DOES THIS DETAIL REALLY MATTER?

Two examples: 1.  You review a proposal that’s going out to a client, and the client’s name says Insert Company Name Herebecause someone forgot to change the proposal template.

YES.  This really matters.

2.  You review a proposal that’s going out to a client, and a team member has formatted the date of the proposal as day/month/year, and you prefer month/day/year.  You email the team member and tell them to change the date formatting.

NO.  This really doesn’t matter.   (True story, BTW.)

Details matter.  Some of the time. An effective leader knows when to jump in, and when to back off.

When you focus on details that don’t matter, what you’re mostly doing is showing off your inner control freak.

(Last time I checked the world’s best researched Characteristics of Admired Leaders, Control Freak did not make the list.)

Of course, you would never be such a micro-manager as to tell someone to change their date formatting.  That’s just, well…freaky.

But try this on for size:  Have you ever critiqued another person’s work?  Work that was great (and would have been fine) in its own right?  But you felt compelled to offer some comments? You gave your input because, in your mind,  “The result would be so much better if only they added/changed these few things.”

You had good intentions.  After all, it’s about excellence and quality, right?


You might win this battle, but you’ll lose the war. 

When you added your comments (to take it from “95% to 100%”),  the other person stopped owning the outcome.

When they abandoned ownership, they gave up their passion, engagement, and commitment.

They’ve just been demoted:  from owner to renter.

You reminded them: you’re just an employee. And they’ll live out their demotion in their next task, on the next project, with the next client.

Your “need to improve things” only focused on content (the task) and not on the context (the relationship).   You were short sighted.    

Which is a nice way of saying that you were nitpicking.

But you were doing it on a clean head.

So nitpick…but only when it counts.

Otherwise, it’s (to quote Robert Heinlein) like “teaching a pig to sing. It’s a waste of time, and it annoys the pig.”

What nitpicking experiences have you had? (Either as the picker or the “pickee”.)  What did you learn?

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