Misleading signals: How tiny details sometimes have major impact

F letter
The decision to enter a lower-case "f" rather than upper case "F" took two hours of my time this morning
F letter
The decision to enter a lower-case “f” rather than upper case “F” took two hours of my time this morning

This morning, the WiFi on the home computer went down just as I was about to start writing the blog. In our household (and largely at the business) I’m the designated “techie” — although this claim-to-fame may not be justified. I tried the usual fixes: Restarting, checking the cables, making sure there weren’t any key switches “off” — nothing worked. Every time I reentered the system password it bounced, saying the password was invalid.

This should have set off a warning signal, but when I checked what I thought was where I had securely stored the password, I found I was indeed entering the correct password — or at least, so I thought. Finally, I went to a second line of defence, the system console, where the password can be revealed with a button or two. And I discovered the problem: In one place, there is an upper case “F” and I had used the lower case “f”.

If we wish to go into the word of deleted expletives, I suppose I could add a few additional letters. But the “F”ing issue consumed about two hours of my time, messed up the day work plans, and certainly caused a fair bit of stress. All because of the failure to capitalize a single letter.

The challenge, of course, is knowing which details are important and which are not. If you are preparing a RFP submission response, the failure to capitalize a word or two may be insignificant, but (for public sector submittals) perhaps a single check box in an obscure schedule could be the difference between disqualification and shortlist status. (Screening mechanisms, to be fair, need to be rigorous and basic qualifications requirements are non-negotiable in many cases.)

I wish I had a good answer to the question about how to prioritize and recognize when the details are important and when they can be more distracting than useful. As you can see from this morning’s story, I’ve had several rather embarrassing fails along the way in the details area.

However, some common sense applies. If it is important, then the details are important. If you are dealing with very large volumes, small points can be magnified in some places or (simply because of the project’s scale) a minor variation can have enough economic significance to justify someone spending days (or even weeks) seeking out a better way. (Think about the composition of a ketchup packet at McDonald’s; yes, a tiny item, but multiply by the number of franchise locations and packets, and a fraction of a cent in cost — or a slight improvement in quality — might translate to hundreds of thousands of dollars, or more, in revenue or client satisfaction metrics.)

And yes, I’ll remember that “F” next time I need to reboot my home Wi-Fi?password.

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