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Do you think attention to detail skills inhibit, enable, or does nothing for one's ability to be an effective project manager / leader? And why?

EDIT: @Angeline and Ian: What about the intrinsic skill or innate ability of attention to detail? By personality, some of us are weed thinkers, some tree thinkers, and some forest thinkers, meaning we have intrinsic strengths to be naturally in one of these categories. While each of us to some degree can choose to move up and down in our thinking, is there anything around the constitutional personality trait that would either enable or inhibit our ability to be great leaders? Or do nothing to enable or inhibit?

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  • This kind of feels like a leading question, or even a rhetorical one... Are you really expecting someone to say that attention to detail is bad?
    – mattdm
    Commented Sep 24, 2011 at 14:55
  • Rhetorical? Leading? How? I am asking for opinions on this particular trait and its prevalence with PM leadership skills. It is neither rhetorical nor leading. Further, it comes from another PM forum in which another opined in a different way than me, so I am posing to this forum. I do not think this deserves a negative score in any way! Commented Sep 24, 2011 at 15:11
  • If opinions like this cannot be sought, what use is this exchange? Commented Sep 24, 2011 at 15:12
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    Many complex issues with which we deal do not have answers. In many cases, all we are able to do is induce a working theory from which we might be able to apply in our work. We operate under a lot of beliefs, many of which are not grounded in truth. If, in this forum, someone walks away with a changed belief or even a slightly more open mind than before a question like this was asked, then this forum did a valuable thing. Or, we can keep it simple and ask questions like how do you arrive at CPI. Commented Sep 24, 2011 at 19:50
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    It's not a matter of simple vs. complex. It's a matter of Q&A site vs. discussion forum.
    – mattdm
    Commented Sep 25, 2011 at 14:56

2 Answers 2

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As the saying goes, the devil is in the detail, and an effective Project Manager must be able AND willing to pay attention to detail when necessary.

I would consider the following aspects:

  • in terms of the project management processes and tasks directly executed by the PM, many inherently require attention to detail, whether it's to schedule resources or track a budget. It's difficult and risky to stay "high level" for these type of tasks.

  • for other aspects of project delivery though, details should be handled by relevant resources competent in that particular area. For example in a building construction project, fire safety aspects would be handled by a fire protection engineer, and the PM wouldn't be expected (or have time!) to know all the details in that particular area. They would need though to plan for fire protection work, track it and be ready to go down to a detailed level if issues arose in delivering this part.

  • the notion that attention to detail can inhibit efficiency is legitimate when a PM spends too much time on specific details at the detriment of other more important tasks, or when they get so caught up in details they lose sight of the overall project. The challenge for the PM is therefore to know which detail to spend time on and when.

So I would say that attention to detail is an important PM skill and "pays off" when:

  • it is balanced with the ability to look at the big picture.
  • it is combined with effective priority management, i.e. the PM can effectively assess when and to what extent he/she should go into the details. In other words, when there is value in paying attention to detail.
  • it helps support the project team in delivering their work and resolving problems. I think it also helps building team spirit and confidence when team members see that their leader understands and is interested in what they do.

To address @David's question's edit : I personally think that the innate ability of attention to detail is part of effective management and leadership. But it's not enough on its own: I think what makes leaders is actually the ability to look at all the different levels (weeds, trees, forests and all!); that's what gives them the ability to see something others don't. To use another metaphor, to me a leader is eagle-eyed: able to see the big picture, yet spotting the small but critical things in it! And to use a real-world example: Steve Jobs = amazing global vision + incredible attention to detail.

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Getting into detail because you need to is a good thing. Getting into detail because you want to, because you can, because your background allows it, or because you reckon that you have more technical skills than the person who should be looking after the detail, is probably a bad thing. Knowing the difference is critical, and it is essential to be honest enough with yourself to know the real reason why you are getting into the details.


However... The above was written before David's edit, in which he asks for comment on intrinsic abilities. I'm no psychologist, but my instinct is that the great project manager needs to be focused on delivering against a set of agreed outcomes for most of the time. At the risk of mixing my metaphors just a little too much, from time to time this will require a rummage through the weeds to find out what is going wrong or to pick up the pieces, while at other times it will require a quick trip in the helicopter to make sure the forest is still more or less the same shape as it was when the project started. However, most of the time will be spent working with individual trees or small plantations within the forest, nurturing, protecting, felling, and extracting the timber as appropriate.

What I'm trying to say is that there is a difference between the role of the technical specialist, the role of the project manager, and the role of the corporate strategist or corporate leader. Some people clearly have the ability to carry out two or even all three of these roles, but they are fulfilling different roles at different times. But, as I say, I am no psychologist, and these are purely my views based on many years of observing colleagues, and taking an interest in trying to understand what works and what doesn't.

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