How much detail is enough detail?


Managing an organization, team, or project almost always involves a fair number of details to consider and decisions to make. Whether you’re managing people or providing prompts to an Artificial Intelligence (AI) chatbot, it’s important to provide the right level of detail. Details matter. If you don’t have enough details, then there won’t be enough guidance to direct efforts to a desired result. If you have too many details, you may overload people and processes with complexity that prevents effective action.

Granularity refers to the size and scale of detail present in a set of data, instructions, or information. As the name suggests, granularity can be thought of like grains of sand. If you zoom in too close while on a beach, all you will see are individual grains of sand without knowing you’re on a beach. If you zoom out too far, you may think you’re looking at a beach but won’t be able to see the individual grains to know it’s sand. The ability to zoom in and out as needed is an important skill for any leader. Information overload, sometimes called “infobesity”, “infoxication”, or “information anxiety”, is a real problem in today’s modern society.

So, how much detail is enough detail? The short answer to that question is enough to get the job done, but not so much that it stifles creativity.

Here are some of the dangers of excessive detail a.k.a “Too Much Information (TMI)”:

  • Cognitive overload (brain fog) that creates anxiety and a depletion of willpower.
  • Processing overhead in which time and money resources are spent developing and managing details that don’t create value.
  • Reduction in agility to handle the unexpected.
  • Big picture “blurring” that obscures the meaning and purpose of activities.
  • Level of detail (LOD) bias in which someone erroneously assumes a greater level of detail means a greater overall value of those details.
  • Errors of omission in which non-essential data is described in too much detail at the expense of missing another more critical piece of information.
  • Winning the battle, but losing the war (“hollow victory”) in which all details are properly managed, but the overall goal is not attained.

If you’re a leader, I’m sure that last bullet point rings true: “We followed all of the instructions completely, but we still didn’t reach our goal” or “We did everything you told us, but it still didn’t work and it’s not our fault.”

The problems of not enough detail (ambiguity) are just as bad as too much detail. Here are some problems with ambiguity:

  • Poor time management to spend the right amount of time on important things.
  • Missing essential steps or tasks that prevent project completion.
  • Underfunding an endeavor because important details were not known.
  • Accountability issues when people didn’t know about something, so they don’t feel accountable for them.
  • “Blame game” when a person asserts that someone should have known about a detail even though it wasn’t specifically identified.
  • Exposing a project to unnecessary risk because all pertinent issues weren’t fully considered.
  • Lack of stakeholder support to start or finish something because there’s not enough detail to know what’s going on.

In computer science, GIGO means “Garbage In, Garbage Out”. It refers to the concept of flawed or incomplete inputs that lead to erroneous or problematic outputs. In like manner, the quality and quantity of inputs to a project team will directly affect the overall success of a project.

Let’s reconsider the initial question posed in this article, “how much detail is enough detail,” with a more complete answer. Here are some ways to ensure that you have the right amount of granularity and level of detail in your data points, project plans, and other information.

  1. Always identify the purpose (or goal, vision, desired state, expected outcome) of a set of details. It’s essential for people to know what’s being described and why. It still amazes me that some people jump straight to the details without a clear purpose for the meaning of those details. Details must be associated with some worthwhile purpose or aim, or else they are meaningless (by definition).
  2. Ensure that all deliverables are clearly identified. A deliverable is a tangible good or service that’s to be provided as part of a project. All stakeholders to a set of tasks need to know what is going to be produced by those tasks, such as reports, plans, documents, graphics, online systems, and so forth. Knowing what’s being created is an essential detail.
  3. Identify all essential tasks or data points. It’s more important to at least identify the critical parts of a system than it is to get bogged down into too many details about each part. A missing step that prevents project completion is a fatal flaw, whereas the omission of a minor detail may not impact the project at all. Cover all the bases.
  4. Provide additional details about things that matter or are likely to be the source of confusion. If you know that something is likely to need additional explanation, then go ahead and describe it in more detail than you would other things. Some things are self-explanatory, but many things aren’t. Understanding context, size, scope, shape, configuration, and other qualities will help in creating mutual understanding.
  5. Leave off optional or non-essential details that are “nice to know” but not “need to know.” I’ve been personally guilty of providing too much detail about trivial items. Each level of detail adds to overall system complexity and the ensuing “brain fog.” If it’s non-essential, then leave it out.
  6. Match the right level of detail to the right people and tasks. Some people crave details. Some people don’t want to be bothered by details. Details matter, but the amount of granularity should be tailored to the target audience. Be forewarned, some people don’t want to be bothered by details until the end of a project, and then they begin to get interested. When in doubt, document the details as they may come in handy later.
  7. Where possible, quantify details numerically with a specific number or a range of numbers to answer the question, “how much” or “when.”
  8. When needed, qualify details with information that provides clarity about its distinguishing features or essential parts.
  9. Understand the cost of information and adjust accordingly. The value of information and details should exceed the cost to obtain them. If it takes $100 to identify a detail that’s only worth $1, then you’ve lost money. Be aware of information costs.
  10. State all assumptions that are made when there’s a lack of clarity in essential information. Oftentimes, I’m asked to prepare a project proposal, but a prospective client won’t tell me the budget. It’s impossible to create a plan without a budget, so I have to state my budgetary assumptions based on experience and industry averages. Stating assumptions provides a basis for decision-making in the absence of specific guidance.
  11. Finally, apply the test of a “reasonable person” to your level of detail. Would a reasonable person examine your level of detail and have enough information to make an informed decision or complete the tasks?

I love this quote about details:

It’s human nature to survive, to be average and do what you have to do to get by. That is normal. When you have something good happen, it’s the special people that can stay focused and keep paying attention to detail, working to get better and not being satisfied with what they have accomplished.

Coach nick saban

The ability to provide the right amount of granularity (level of detail) is an important skill in managing resources, projects, and people. Being detail-oriented ensures that enough is known about the particulars of something to reach a worthwhile goal. If you have too many details, then information overload and ‘brain fog’ sets in. A failure in having enough detail could put a project or conclusion at risk. Set your team up for success by making sure you have enough detail to get the job done, but not so much that it stifles creativity.

[Joe Domaleski, a Fayette County resident for 25 years, is the owner of Country Fried Creative – an award-winning digital marketing agency located in Peachtree City. His company was the Fayette Chamber’s 2021 Small Business of the Year.  Joe is a husband, father of three grown children, and proud Army veteran.  He has an MBA from Georgia State University and enjoys sharing his perspectives drawing from thirty years of business leadership experience. ]