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The Devil is in the details: The 'Whys' of Failure for the 'Hows' of Progress

In the face of failure, the human tendency is to rationalize but the sign of true progress towards success starts when you analyze, in-depth might I add. “The urge to find a single explanation as the cause for such calamitous events seems to come from a modern human need for an easy explanation as often as possible.” This statement by Professor Eric H. Cline (about his book ‘1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed’) regarding the mysterious Bronze Age collapse became my food for thought for days, and here I’ll tell you why.

To provide more context, let me tell you a little more about the case in point - the decline of the Late Bronze Age civilizations of the Mediterranean and Near East. What is clearly known is that, between c. 1250 - c. 1150 BCE, major cities were destroyed, whole civilizations fell, diplomatic and trade relations were severed, writing systems vanished, and there was widespread devastation and death on a scale never experienced before. The precise cause of the Bronze Age Collapse has been debated by scholars for over a century, but the single broad explanation for everything that went down has been based on invasions by the Sea Peoples (a confederacy of naval raiders).

The aforementioned quote by Professor Eric comes into the picture here. In his interview with Ancient History Encyclopaedia, he elaborated that it has long been clear that it took much more than a single cause to bring down the Bronze Age civilizations. The mere fact that the inland empires like Kassite Babylonia, Elam, and Assyria also declined shows that only the Sea Peoples can’t be blamed. These empires failed due to a combination of primary causes which occurred simultaneously or in quick succession due to: natural catastrophes like earthquakes and prolonged droughts, migration and foreign invasions, internal rebellions, and a sharp decline in international trade. This also led in turn to political fragmentation and disintegration, as well as significant cultural change.

Closer home

This insightful interview not only appeased the history buff in me but was also a firm reassurance that ‘The devil is in the details’ indeed. I actually think that it is far more interesting to delve into a multi-causal explanation and ask questions, especially when it comes to our perspective of failure or even looking at the negatives in general. It becomes extremely important to get into the details, however insignificant, to reach the root cause because Occam’s Razor principle (that the simplest solution is the most likely) just won’t cut it in such cases.

Catching up with the times and looking at something closer to home, the Global Gender Gap Report 2021 drives the point of my blog title across in a more personal way. Since we are discussing the ‘whens, whats and wheres’. Let’s talk: India, gender, and the 21st-century respectively. India slipped 28 places to rank 140th among 156 countries in the World Economic Forum report that also stated that the pandemic has rolled back years of progress towards equality between men and women the world over. Before you continue to read my thoughts, I’d love for you all to pause and think about the gender gap in India. What is the first logical cause/explanation that is most likely to pop into your mind? Inequality.

The data from the report highlights a shocking statistic that it will take 135.6 years to bridge the gender gap worldwide and there’s a whole generation of women that need to bear the brunt of it. But generalizing the cause to just overall inequality does no good, as we all know. A closer look at the report throws light on this aspect, going beyond the unequal power relations between women and men.

The Global Gender Gap Report 2021 is a measure of the gender gap on four parameters: economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment. The gender gap in India has widened to 62.5%, largely due to women’s inadequate representation in politics, technical and leadership roles, decrease in women’s labor force participation rate, poor healthcare, lagging female to male literacy ratio, income inequality. The gap is the widest in the political empowerment sub-category with a significant decline in the number of women ministers (from 23.1% in 2019 to 9.1% in 2021). Economic participation and opportunity regression was placed next in line. The estimated earned income of women in India is only one-fifth of men’s. However, the gap in educational attainment and health, and survival has been comparatively bridged.

It is way more complex and nuanced than just ‘inequality’ as a catchphrase, isn’t it? One cannot deny that major systemic and policy changes are the need of the hour to empower women and tackle gender disparities. But it can be acknowledged and reflected upon only when the ‘devil in the details’ as presented to you, is recognized.

Fishbone analysis from the corporate world

All my thoughts always come circling back to the corporate world, a field that has always pushed me to look at the bigger picture. It is but natural for me to make correlations and ponder over how a certain concept can be applied to better corporate perspectives. In organizational life or (life in general, to be honest) failure is sometimes hard-hitting, sometimes inevitable, but is always a learning experience and that’s how I like to see it come what may. Additionally, learning from failures is anything but straightforward. It goes beyond picking one cause of failure and writing a report on it, asking the team to reflect on what they did wrong, and exhorting them to avoid similar mistakes in the future.

Having established this, I would like to discuss one very useful tool that is very handy for your root cause analysis strategy - the famed Fishbone Analysis. Once you have identified the ‘what’ and asked the right ‘whys’, you have arrived at a point where the power of this tool can be unleashed. Simply put, it is a powerful visualization tool that helps unearth the ‘hows’ and get closer to the details.

A fishbone diagram, as the name suggests, mimics a fish skeleton. The underlying problem is placed as the fish’s head (facing right) and the causes extend to the left as the bones of the skeleton; the ribs branch off the back and denote major causes, while sub-branches branch off of the causes and denote root causes. This approach not only allows strategic assessment of say, a failure but also allows you to assign proper weightage to all the causes presented to you. It stimulates and broadens thinking about potential or real causes and facilitates further examination via the segregation of siloed and interlocked causes. Because everyone’s ideas can find a place on the diagram, and you end up with potential outcomes to work towards, this cause-and-effect analysis helps to generate consensus about causes. It can help to focus attention on constructive use of facts for future course corrections and progress.


Once you recognize and define a problem, do you jump straight in and try to close the loop with just damage control? Or do you stop to consider whether there's actually a deeper problem that needs your attention? If you only fix the symptoms – what you see on the surface – the problem will almost certainly return, and need fixing over, and over again. Looking deeper to figure out what's causing the problem not only helps fix the underlying systems and processes so that it goes away for good, but you also get the best learnings out of it.

As established, when analyzing deep issues and causes, it’s important to take a comprehensive and holistic approach. Focus on the WHYs of what happened and get to the HOWs. Strive to provide context and information that will result in an action or a decision. Remember: good analysis is actionable analysis. Moving forward, be methodical and find concrete cause-effect evidence to back up your findings. Provide enough information and map out all the details with utmost clarity to inform a corrective course of action. There are a large number of techniques and strategies that are used for root cause analysis, and I’ve gone into the details of the fishbone diagram. Regardless of the methodology, attention to detail is key and cannot be neglected when it comes to the bigger picture - continuous improvement, change management, and general operations.

To sum it up, that’s essentially the lesson of this idiom and proverb, and a sound piece of advice from my end: Details are important, so be conscientious and pay attention to the particulars. Heed it, however, and you may be able to avoid any ‘devil’ anywhere.


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