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Only Sweat the Small Stuff

Posted on November 22, 2021


Sweating

Today’s Morning Buzz is by Joe Warren, Assistant City Manager for the City of Atchison, KS.

What I’m reading: The Advantage, by Patrick Lencioni

What I’m watching: The Morning Show

What I’m listening to: Sturgill Simpson


All my life I’ve been told, “Don’t sweat the small stuff,” as a way of letting minor setbacks roll off my back and focusing only on that which is important. I’ve heard it often enough that the words sometimes slip out of my own mouth without even realizing, while trying to comfort a coworker or even one of my daughters.

The problem is, I don’t agree.

You see, when working in local government we are often tasked with a great deal of big stuff. Housing. Homelessness. The environment. Economic development. Public safety. Utilities. Infrastructure. Quality of life. Tax rates. Mental health. Equity. The list goes on.

The big stuff is so big that there is never an easy fix. There’s no magic wand, no fail-safe policy, and no short cut to success. It can be overwhelming. If you have even the slightest bit of perfectionism or OCD in your body, seeing a big problem that continues to be a big problem and knowing that you could work on the issue all day, every day, for a year and still not solve that problem, can be a major throat punch to the psyche.

“It’s the little details that are vital. Little things make the big things happen.”

Lucky for us, details matter. And not only do they matter, but details are also as worthy of your direct attention as any big project or initiative.

Legendary college basketball coach John Wooden led his teams to 10 championships in a 12-year span. It’s a feat unmatched in major team sports since. Wooden once said, “It’s the little details that are vital. Little things make the big things happen.”

Wooden took it to such an extreme that during the first practice of the season he would start by showing his players how to put their socks on correctly – to help avoid blisters.

Amazon founder and executive chairman Jeff Bezos said, “If you don’t understand the details of your business you are going to fail.”

Bezos is now the richest man in the world running the third largest business in the world.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell once said, “Never neglect details. When everyone’s mind is dulled or distracted the leader must be doubly vigilant.”

Powell built himself up from a janitor and Pepsi bottler into National Security Advisor and Secretary of State. That process of improving himself was undoubtedly more complex and long-term than nearly every endeavor we will encounter as public servants.

“If you don’t understand the details of your business you are going to fail.”

Now, I can empathize with the OCD crowd who have essentially gone off the deep end, thinking, “Great. Not only will I worry about the big picture, but now I have every single small detail to stress over. Was this supposed to help?”

Yes, it is. Just hang in there a little longer.

We’ve established why it is important to dial in past the big picture. Big accomplishments are simply a collection of small milestones. You aren’t born with the ability to run a municipal operation or department. You go to school for many years, work many jobs, learn many skills. It’s a collective process that usually continues even as you earn an important role. Solving the housing crises in our communities or helping our cities become destinations rich in quality of life services and amenities will take the same types of commitments.

“Never neglect details. When everyone’s mind is dulled or distracted the leader must be doubly vigilant.”

The idea is to step away from those daunting initiatives and give yourself a smaller focus area.

Every big problem requires a complex plan with specific milestones to see through to fruition. Rather than stressing about housing, focus on improving the quality of stock through enhanced code enforcement. Or tackle the zoning requirements to allow for more accessible development prospects through relaxed setbacks and parking minimums. In other words, get a collection of small things to divert your attention to, focusing on the details and making progress toward a small milestone that, when teamed with a series of other small milestones, add up to big solutions.

Focusing on the details can be freeing. Details are attainable and accessible and easier to quantify. Before you know it, after some time focusing on the details, you will move the needle on the larger problem that faces your community.

In other words, do sweat the small stuff. In fact, only sweat the small stuff, and the big stuff will get taken care of.

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