Organization and Attention to Detail Are Not the Same Thing

If you look for a project management job -- or almost any job, for that matter -- chances are you'll see some version of "being organized" and "attention to detail" in the requirements.

Take Viget's job posting for web project manager/interactive producer (which you should totally apply for, of course):

Our Web Project Managers:

Get made fun of by their friends because they're "too" organized (as if THAT'S possible). ...

Were born with an awareness of and appreciation for details.

As this posting shows, we often think of being organized and being detail-oriented as two aspects of a single skillset. But I've come to realize that not only are they two different things, they often are in direct opposition.

"Organization" in the context of project management generally refers to time management and project/personal planning. (Being physically organized, like having a neat desk, is often a sign of this broader organization, but the two kinds of organization can be mutually exclusive.) "Attention to detail" refers to things like making sure copy is clean, budget numbers are rigorous, and tickets are all accounted for.

Organization and attention to detail are definitely related. You need to understand a project's big picture enough to define its constituent tasks, to which you can then apply your attention to detail. But in some circumstances they stop being compatible and begin to work at cross-purposes.

Ever obsessed over reformatting a budget spreadsheet when you should have finished four other tasks, or taken such detailed notes that it took you as long as the meeting to write them up? Your attention to detail overwhelmed your organization.

Ever focused so much on matching week-to-week planning to a Gantt chart that a bunch of tasks fell through the cracks? Organization won out over detail.

I think of organization and attention to detail as two axes on a project manager's SkillgraphTM. All project managers -- all people -- have a unique combination of the two. (Actually, maybe these aren't skills so much as personality traits or the result of our personal blend of brain juices.) (Mmmm ... brain juice.)

Too much organization without enough detail can lead to a rote, inflexible approach to projects. Too much attention to detail without enough organization can lead to incohesive, off-the-rails projects. A major imbalance in either direction or a perfect-SAT-score equivalent level of both probably means you're super annoying. I'd guess the perfect PM is somewhere around the 90th percentile for organization, 80th percentile for detail.

PMs can be successful with varying organization-to-detail ratios, as long as we recognize which is our dominant skill and work hard to not let it overwhelm the other one.

 

Josh is a senior project manager who focuses on the non-process tasks that help translate ideas into finished products. He works in our Falls Church, VA, office with clients including the World Wildlife Fund, Chronicle of Higher Education, and Privia Medical Group.

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