“Pay more attention to detail.” It’s something we’ve all said to an employee, co-worker or even spouse at some point. It can be a frustrating statement for both the speaker and the listener because it is often akin to saying, “Don’t make mistakes you can easily avoid.” And, many times, the mistake or omission was one easy to avoid, especially if it had been supported by a system, training or other implements.
Understanding and being able to identify which type(s) of attention to detail applies to a specific challenge can help reduce and avoid errors, increase task accuracy, and improve the overall quality of outcomes and solutions. The three types of attention to detail — contrastive, analytical and additive — build upon one another. Contrastive is needed for analytical, and contrastive and analytical are both needed for additive.
Contrastive Attention to Detail
Contrastive attention to detail is necessary for tasks and situations in which there is a comparison (a check or verification), a clear “right or wrong” answer, or for identifying unique elements. It is completely objective because there is always a single, correct solution. Numbers either match or they don’t, specifications are either met or not, an address is either right or wrong, accounts balance or they don’t, it’s red or it’s blue, it’s present or it’s absent, 2+2 is always 4.
In general, minimal specialized knowledge is required for contrastive attention to detail, which means we can practically automate attention to detail with the proper systems and minimal training. It is as close as we can get to removing the risk of human error. Therefore, we generally want to break tasks and challenges down to contrastive attention to detail. One doesn’t need to know how to make a hamburger if one works at McDonald’s because all tasks are broken down into contrastive components.
Analytical Attention to Detail
There is a great deal of overlap between analytical and contrastive attention to detail, with the main differences between the two being that analytical attention to detail may involve multiple possible solutions and a higher level of knowledge will be required to develop them. Most knowledge workers operate within the context of analytical attention to detail. Each day they do their best to identify the most important and/or relevant elements of a challenge, and then combine and/or adjust and prioritize them to develop the best solutions.
There are often multiple reasonable solutions, and the knowledge worker must apply critical thinking and judgment based largely on his or her knowledge and experience in the profession, field or industry. While the desired result may include precise specifications, there may be multiple solutions or possibilities for achieving it.
Challenges requiring analytical attention to detail can be largely systematized by breaking them down to contrastive elements. Generally, the final decision or prescribed action will require the application of specialized knowledge, so systemization is primarily focused on increasing consistency of outcomes, reducing errors and conserving resources.
Additive Attention to Detail
Additive attention to detail is about innovation. Whether the challenge is related to physical products or experiences, it’s about creating improvements or developing something altogether new.
There are likely multiple — perhaps endless — solutions to achieve the desired result, and superior knowledge, extensive experience, mastery of the subject and, perhaps, even insight and inspiration help produce the best solutions to challenges requiring additive attention to detail.
Because every time is a “first,” systemization is difficult. However, the process of identifying the numerous contributory elements and the opportunities for improvement or innovation — taking everything into account — can be systematized.
Move toward Contrastive
Regardless of the nature of the challenge, it is helpful to look for opportunities to break it down into contrastive components. Doing so reduces or removes the need for specialized knowledge and may allow installation of systems that, essentially, automate attention to detail and empower more people to be effective and successful.
Chris Denny is the founder of Attention to Detail, which works with companies to help their employees improve their attention to detail. He earned a Bachelor of Business Administration with a specialty in human resources from Texas A&M University and an MBA with a focus on operations from the University of Houston. He is the author of Improve Attention To Detail: A straightforward system to develop attention to detail in yourself, employees, and across an organization.