Are You Swimming in a Sea of Detail? Helpful Observations from the US Air Force

May 28, 2024 4 Min Read
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Image is from freepik.com by @studiostock

When does the Air Force swim?

This isn’t a joke or a trick question, but it does get to a truism I observed recently when I delivered a presentation and spent time with the Air Combat Command in Langley, Virginia. It was my honor to speak to a group of wing commanders whose primary mission is keeping the country safe, but who, like many, many corporate folks, are being weighed down by the drudgery of low-value and often overly complex work. In the Air Force, as I have observed through engagements with various sectors of the military, the place where they tend to swim is in the sea of detail.

It's worth exploring this very real place, both to gain an understanding of the military experience (especially during Military Appreciation Month throughout May), and to provide a way out in our parallel corporate experience.

Detail always feels valid as it enters the system.

We would immediately reject details if they did not feel right. But it all does. Every bit seems tagged back to a critical project or purpose. But in studying the kinds of detail the military contends with, I found that there were actually four tributaries contributing to the flood – several with some doubt to their overall necessity.

  1. Life-saving detail. Although it may feel like life or death in our corporate jobs when a report doesn’t get sent out or a boss is unhappy, the fact is, it’s not. But for the military, much of the detail that enters the system does so because you never know which piece of data or information will save someone’s life or, for that matter, our country. Keenly aware of the critical risk behind a detail mistake, from commanders on down, everyone errs on the side of more: more briefs, more meetings, more comms, more detail in every area. The tricky thing is that sometimes they’re right— one small detail might make the critical difference.
  2. Rewarded detail. As military professionals climb the ladder of success, they prove their capacity, smarts, and capability through their mastery of detail. The exact same thing happens in the corporate world. When I have a new employee who catches every detail, it instantly inspires trust. It makes me feel like giving that person more work, and more important work. In the military, as individuals slowly progress on their career path, they find themselves contributing detail in direct proportion to how much it’s appreciated – which is a lot. Trouble is, they eventually reach a place where they need to move up in altitude and learn to think strategically. This need for a broader perspective can conflict with their detailed “set point,” which is almost always elevated.
  3. Emotional detail. In the corporate world, we talk about “hallucinated urgency” and the insane pace built into the workday. It’s even worse in the military, though arguably for better reasons. There is an emotional swirl to an urgent, crisis-driven battle rhythm, and detail can become the handhold. Whether it’s the need for control or a way to stem anxiety, detail makes us feel safer. Our creating, researching, perfecting, and documenting detail, calms the nervous system in an agitated world.
  4. Mindless detail. In some ways, this is an accumulation of the first three tributaries where we reach a “what the heck “status quo and add more and more detail because we’re so confused by what’s currently in the system and what’s necessary.

The solution is the lens of intentionality. When we can insert small wedges of thoughtfulness, we become more objective and in control of our detail choices.

Read more: The Perfectionism Trap: The Devil Really is in the Details

Here are a few ways to get started whether you serve a nation or a corporation:

  • Ask the 5 Whys: Developed at Toyota Motor Corporation, the Five Whys is a critical streamlining technique that can be used in many contexts. Simply asking “Why” 3 to 5 times gets us to the core and often underexplored rationale behind many of our actions. When there is detail in a process or project where you think it should be omitted, keep asking why.
  • Examine details like diamonds: It’s harder for a recipient to decide if detail is important than it is for a sender. As you share briefs, reports, requests, and updates, take ownership and accountability for adding to the sea of detail as items leave your desk. Every bit of detail requires time and attention from someone else, so slow down, take a minute (or a second) to think, and refer back to the Five Whys. Is the detail necessary and helpful? Will it improve the outcome? If you’re requesting detail, be equally intentional. How much information and detail do you really need?
  • Keep the chat sacred: Often in high-stakes meetings, we are brilliantly riding two horses. We are paying attention to the person addressing us, while others on our team are pounding on the chat with reactions, questions, and additions. I know some brilliant double-taskers who can keep one foot in each saddle, but there can be a cost to focus. So, keep the chat sacred. Do not add anything there unless you know it’s important and time-sensitive. You can follow one of my favourite triads originated by Craig Ferguson: Does this need to be said? Does this need to be said by me? Does this need to be said by me now?

To manage the deluge of details, it’s crucial to foster discernment. Whether in military operations or corporate strategies, focusing on what truly matters can streamline efforts and sharpen focus. Keep an eye on the four tributaries of details—life-saving; rewarded; emotional; and mindless. Watching and expecting the detail that flows from each will give you an objectivity that many lack and put you back in the pilot’s seat.

This was also published on Juliet Funt's LinkedIn.

Edited by: Kiran Tuljaram

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Juliet Funt is the founder and CEO at JFG (Juliet Funt Group), which is a consulting and training firm built upon the popular teaching of CEO Juliet Funt, author of A Minute to Think.
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