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Sweating the Small Stuff — Why Attention to Detail Matters

In my first truly independently responsible position — where my actions alone could make a material difference to business outcomes — I came face to face with the reality that attention to detail isn’t optional.

I landed in a product management role by accident. Literally.

I was auditing a huge mess with prepaid phone cards, when the fully fledged, qualified and knowledgeable product manager who had brought me in on contract to fix that mess was seriously injured in a car crash. Phone cards for this national telco were tiny, and problematic, which is the only reason they kept me, with precisely zero product management experience, on to mind the fort for a while.

Along with one of the best administrators you could ever hope for, and (eventually) a superb customer account manager, we went all-in to keep phone cards afloat. We made sales, established processes, got the ship righted and proved the category with growth topping 3,800%. We proved it so well that this mainstream telco decided acquiring NZ’s leading phone card company would be in everybody’s best interests.

Sales were strong, profit margins were solid, the board approved, and the deal was done. And then, a smart auditor realized the costing tables hadn’t been updated.

While we weren’t looking, carrier costs had increased. A minute’s worth of calling time cost more than it did a few months back. We hadn’t increased prices, because we didn’t realize we needed to. The profit margin—the number the entire acquisition had been costed on — was screwed.

It was my responsibility. I ran the phone card product, and I hadn’t realized that meant I needed to oversee every. single. thing. I missed something so fundamental, so important, that it could have sunk a deal, cost company founders a sale, and cost people their jobs.

The head of product didn’t yell at me, though he could have. He helped fix it, the acquisition went ahead, and the company achieved a solidly profitable position in the NZ phone card market as long as that market existed.

The lesson that stuck with me, is that you have to sweat the small stuff. The details really matter.

The impact of your mistakes depends on the position you hold.

A decimal point — a single dot — can make the difference between market dominance and insolvency. Having a job, or losing not just your own job, but causing others losing their jobs as well. If you’re a checkout operator, a mistake means one customer gets over or under charged. If you’re a doctor, a mistake can mean someone loses their life. If you’re a politician, it can mean multiple ruined lives… even multiple affected generations, in ways you may never have intended, but nonetheless caused.

What you focus on, or don’t notice — that’s on you. There are no excuses.