Monday, October 17, 2011

The Chief Detail Officer

Here's a TED talk worth watching. It's from April 2010, but the point it makes is timeless, even if the Tiger Woods jokes aren't.

Rory Sutherland persuasively makes the case that organizations don't spend enough time working on the small stuff. That, in fact, there is a bias in most organizations that big problems have to be met with big solutions--solutions that have to be conceptualized by powerful people and executed with lots and lots of money.

Sutherland doesn't claim that approach won't work in some situations, but he comes out stridently for a different approach, embodied by something he calls the Chief Detail Officer, the CDO. This isn't the person responsible for coordinating all the details. It is the person responsible for finding small things that cost little that have tremendous impact and making sure they are done right and consistently.

If you don't have time to watch the whole thing, jump to just after the ten-minute mark and listen to him talk through the four quadrant diagram he's created to illustrate his point. Here's my approximation of it:
There's a question mark in the lower right quadrant, the one representing the things that have a big impact but which don't cost a lot money, because, as Sutherland says, we don't currently have a word for those kinds of things. And if we did, he says, maybe we'd spend a little more time looking for them.

It really resonates with me, because I've seen these nameless things in action. Here's a quick story.

I've been in association management for 18 years now. I started as a meeting planner. I've coordinated educational sessions for 60 and city-wide conventions for 6,000. I've stuffed more cardstock name badges into plastic badge holders than I care to mention. And I've worn them for years, usually flapping around uselessly on the end of a lanyard.

The first conference I went to with my current association, the staff showed me a trick they've been doing for years. I'd never seen anything like it before. They printed their name badges on both sides of the piece of cardstock. Why? So that whichever way the darn thing flopped against someone, their name would be clear for everyone to see.

And at that first meeting one of the Board members told me a story about how that little technique had helped them secure a business deal because it spared them the embarrassment of having forgotten someone's name.

Sutherland may not have a name for these ideas, these things that cost next to nothing but have an impact all out of proportion with their expense, but if a name is what it takes to focus more on them, we ought to come up with one pretty soon.

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