Focus on the details

Lt. Col. Marty Easter, 23rd Space Operations Squadron commander

Lt. Col. Marty Easter, 23rd Space Operations Squadron commander

What do trash cans, graffiti and Seminary Ridge all have in common?  They show the importance of details.

If you have ever taken a family trip to Disneyland or Disney World, you’re probably aware they go to great lengths to make the whole experience as “magical” as possible.  They create this effect through a focus on a vast array of details to provide an overall effect.  One of the most subtle, but very important details, is the placement of trash cans in the parks.  The guideline is trash cans should not be more than 30 feet apart.  They based this rule on observations of how far most people are willing to walk to dispose of garbage instead of dropping it on the ground.  The result is less rubbish on the ground, a more visually appealing park and a more “magical” day.

During the mid to late 1980s, crime in New York subways was rampant. But early in the 1990s, crime rates dropped by 65 percent.  In Malcom Gladwell’s book “The Tipping Point,” he describes the unexpected first step in the dramatic change.  The leadership of the Transit Authority implemented a system to eliminate graffiti.  The plan was to progress line-by-line until all the trains were graffiti-free.  Critics said focusing on a detail like graffiti while felonies were occurring was pointless.  However, history shows attention to detail proved the critics wrong.  Graffiti established an environment which fostered crime.  The result of eliminating graffiti was a change to the environment and the shift ultimately yielded thousands of fewer crimes each year.

On the morning of July 1, 1861, a small force of Union troops waited in the town of Gettysburg on Seminary Ridge for an approaching Confederate force.  The Union cavalry was commanded by Gen. John Buford.  Buford understood the importance of his division in the larger battle and war.  He effectively used his limited manpower to block the Confederate approach and defend the high ground.  The focus on the detail of where his men were placed allowed him to delay the enemy advance for the entire first day of the battle.  This delay provided enough time for the remainder of the Union forces to reach, and secure, the better ground.  Buford’s choices that morning enabled a Union victory at Gettysburg, a battle which is considered a turning point in the war.

One of the principles of warfare is “mass.”  Air Force Doctrine defines mass as “the ability to concentrate effects at the most advantageous place and time to achieve decisive results.”  These examples show the real-world importance of details in achieving effects and results. Buford did not have the luxury of the larger force, but by getting the details right, he reached the advantageous place first and held it to achieve historic results.  Similarly, the New York Transit Authority and the Walt Disney Company focused on the details to change the environment and behavior focused on a specific result. 

As military professionals, we live in a world where details matter more than most places.  To us, details are the difference between success and failure, victory and defeat, life and death.  In space and cyber mission areas, a detail may be the only indication of enemy actions against us.  I challenge you to be vigilant of the details in your life and work. Look for those details that will change your environment for the better and the details that will produce victory.  Decisive results may not come from the most obvious places, but our attention to details may produce enormous effects.