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Polishing the Details

What are we missing when we focus on getting it done rather than getting it right?

man climbing cliff beside beach
Photo by Hu Chen / Unsplash

By Chris Batchelder, Creative Director of Bon Education, with Mary Ames

Like most professionals today, at Bon we often feel the pressure to “focus on the big picture” and “let the details take care of themselves” as we rush to meet deadlines and get new programs up and running. After all, “perfect is the enemy of done.”

Propelled by high-speed internet, on-demand services and constant connectivity, it is easy to simply let go and let the momentum drive us forward. Projects get delivered on time, the results are satisfactory and stakeholders are happy. But lately I have been asking myself, what are we missing when we focus on getting it done rather than getting it right?

Victory Is in the Details

When elite athletes deliver peak performances, from Simone Biles performing gravity-defying aerial stunts to Lewis Hamilton outmaneuvering the competition over a rain-soaked course, we are seeing something far richer than one-off feats of athletic exceptionalism. We are watching professionals who have dedicated their careers to polishing every detail.

Professional rock climber Tommy Caldwell spent seven years perfecting the details of the first-ever free climb of El Capitan’s infamous Dawn Wall, a nearly 3,000m tall slab of sheer granite in Yosemite National Park (in California, USA). Working with his partner Kevin Jorgeson, Caldwell spent countless hours hanging from the rockface, painstakingly mapping and rehearsing every foothold, grip and maneuver required to complete what many considered the most difficult free climb in the world.

“It’s hard to articulate the level of detail that’s required,” Jorgeson explained. “You can’t make any mistakes… you are always on the verge of slipping off.” In the end, Caldwell and Jorgeson’s record-breaking climb took seven years of planning and 18 days of climbing. Since then, only one other climber has repeated their feat.

The risks of skipping over a single detail while completing the most difficult free climb in the world is clear. But what is at stake when we gloss over the details in the business world?

Preparing for Success

Skipping over the big details - budget, staffing, safety - have obvious implications. But what about the nuances of crafting a visual experience conducive to learning and growth, selecting content that is tailored to the cultural experiences of program participants, or adapting learning outcomes based on participants’ stated ambitions? A well-structured program will still run without these touches, but will it have impact?

The acclaimed tenor Mark Padmore said, “I was reminding myself recently about the different words for rehearsal. In French, ‘répétition,’ which speaks for itself; in German, ‘probe’ — proving or trying. In English, it has nothing to do with hearing. Its etymology is to till the earth in preparation for seed.”

The notion of rehearsal as preparing soil for planting is a beautiful metaphor for the role of attention to detail in the process of program design. When we take the time to polish the details, we are giving the program the structure it needs to grow and thrive. Without taking that time, we are tossing our program among the rocks and hoping for the best.

Finding Balance

Focusing on the details requires a long-term view, but that doesn’t have to mean a perpetual delay. As program designers, our challenge lies in knowing when to take a step back to refine a critical detail, and when to press on and see what happens. There is an element of prioritization and risk-taking at play.

Despite seven years of planning, Caldwell and Jorgeson had not successfully completed every stage of the climb before starting their single-push attempt. Polishing the details means that we have taken every step available to prepare ourselves, but there will always be unknowns.

At some point, we just have to go for it.


Chris Batchelder is Creative Director of Bon Education and Co-Founder of interstory. He has designed and led programs for clients across the Middle East, Asia and North America. Chris is a dedicated, life­long multiculturalist and art lover, and he resides in the UAE with his wife and three children.