#038 - How the inconsequential can be unexpectedly impactful
Welcome to Issue #038 of The Forcing Function - your guide to delivering the right outcomes for your projects and your users.
✍️ Insights: How small details can flag up larger issues not just for you but also about you.
🤔 Made me think: Muphry’s Law.
👨💻 Worth checking out: The truth behind the “no brown M&M's” story.
How small details can flag up larger issues not just for you but also about you.
It was an off-hand remark by my accountant that was the memorable part of an otherwise routine meeting.
In the UK, we’ve just crossed over into our new tax year on the 6th April. It’s not a riveting milestone - despite all the marketing emails from investment firms wishing me “happy new tax year” trying to convince me otherwise. However, it is a useful trigger to do some financial “spring cleaning” - hence this call with an accountant about my tax return.
At the end of that call we got chatting about HMRC, the UK’s tax collection department, and their long and arduous journey in “making tax digital”.
Apparently, one of the indicators that HMRC uses to flag your tax return for further investigation is whether or not you’ve fully declared your savings interest.
Now, given how low interest rates still are for saving accounts, this typically doesn’t amount to much. In a previous tax year, this was a paltry £9.00 for me. However, even if it’s almost zero, HMRC knows what this is because your bank sends them this information.
So, in HMRC’s view, if you’ve gone to all the effort to calculate and include on your tax return, then it’s more likely that you've declared all your income to them than not. And, if you haven’t, then that might be an indication that you’ve not completed your tax return fully - perhaps accidentally, perhaps deliberately.
It’s only one signal but I found it fascinating that HMRC uses it to behaviourally risk assess who they need to investigate with their limited resources.
None of us would willing want to be investigated by our tax authority and this anecdote shows how the seemingly inconsequential can have significant impacts.
Details as leading indicators
Back in Issue #004, I wrote about how details can either make you or break you. That the more you notice these details, you more you learn which are the details that matter.
Taking that idea further, that small detail can also be a leading indicator that quickly flags something of concern or of confidence.
When I was helping to recruit for senior BAs for a financial services firm, two of the key role requirements were being “good communicator“ and having “attention to detail”. So, I found it strange when I was presented with CVs from purportedly experienced BAs that failed on these points at the basic level. From conflicting tenses, poor grammar, and unwieldy writing, all the way to inconsistent formatting and being unclear in communicating what they had done in their career and why.
In one memorable example, the candidate’s email address started with “greedisgood@”. Whilst I appreciated the pop reference to Gordon Gekko of the 1987 film, Wall Street, that it was an amusing personal email address, I just didn’t think it was that appropriate. Especially as that BA role was in financial services regulation!
What details are flags for your stakeholders?
Just as much as you may use details as flags, so do the stakeholders that you work with.
That can be a valuable opportunity for you - especially if it’s a stakeholder that you’re having trouble engaging with or building trust with. If you can identify the seemingly trivial that they care about or are sensitive to, then that can be your way in. And, even if you can’t, showing that you’re trying to adapt to them can itself be a positive step in itself.
In one project, that trivial detail for my business sponsor turned out to be consistently turning up early and prepared for meetings with him. Arguably, that should be table stakes as a professional BA. But with back-to-back meetings that tended to overrun, that’s easier said than done.
And this was back in the days where remote working wasn’t a thing. So, I was literally running between buildings from one meeting room to another. But, over time, by never being late and never unprepared for his meetings, it proved to him that I was someone he could not just trust but he could rely upon.
In fact, it’s thanks to him that I now routinely always add an agenda to each meeting invite I send out and why I now have a daily habit to review what meetings I have the next day so I can prepare accordingly.
A health warning about leading indicators
Anecdotes aside, whilst these types of leading indicators can be useful, they should not be used alone.
Like any heuristic, its simplicity is also its downfall. You could end up either presuming that because a detail didn’t flag a concern that there aren’t any other concerns. Or, the opposite. Because a detail did flag a concern to you, you inadvertently let that become the “judge, jury, and executioner” rather than taking the time to confirm that verdict.
Like with good journalism, never rely on one source but cross check with multiple sources lest you go astray.
🤔 Made me think
"If you write anything criticising editing or proofreading, there will be a fault of some kind in what you have written."
A play on the classic Murphy’s Law as a reminder that before criticising the lack of attention to detail in someone else’s work, check the detail of your own work first before you make an idiot of yourself.
Back in 1991 the then UK Prime Minster, Gordon Brown, wrote a letter of condolence to the mother of a fallen soldier. Unfortunately, he got the surname wrong. And when a tabloid newspaper called him out for not caring enough to get the solider’s name right, they too got the soldier’s name wrong and had to apologise themselves.
🧑💻Worth checking out
🔗 The truth behind the “no brown M&M's” story | Van Halen
For those of you who think you know this story, it’s still worth watching this 5 min clip of David Lee Roth (vocalist in Van Halen), explain the full back story. It also shows why you shouldn’t let the “facts” get in the way of a good story that lands far better what you’re trying to achieve.
And for those of you who have never heard of this story, you’re in a treat.
You can view their actual rider here.
🖖Until next Thursday ...
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For now, thank you so much for reading this week's issue of The Forcing Function and I hope that you have a great day.
PS: Thanks to P for reading drafts for me.