skip to main content

The Devil is in the Details

“Success in any endeavor requires single-minded attention to detail and total concentration.”

Willie Sutton (aka, “Slick Willie,” the famous bank robber)

Meaning of The Devil is in the Details

No doubt, from a young age, your parents and teachers taught you to pay close attention to detail when completing your school assignments.

Maybe before every exam, they reminded you to read all of the instructions thoroughly, or they drilled it into your brain to always double-check your work.  That’s essentially the lesson of this idiom and proverb: Details are important, so be conscientious and pay attention to the small things.

The devil is in the details means that the particulars, even if they seem insignificant, can end up causing problems.  In other words, it warns that “evil” can hide in the minutiae or specifics, and thus cautions a person to scrutinize all aspects of a plan, situation, item, etc., including even its most minor details, in order to avoid unforeseen difficulties and issues.

You’ve likely heard a similarly cautionary expression pertaining to documents, specifically legal contracts and agreements: Read the fine print.

Or is It

How does the devil is in the details apply to the business world?

As an example, consider our extensive use of contracts.

You’re close to a deal, but concerns linger.  Parts of the contract seem less than precise.  What in the world does “reasonable best efforts” or “good faith” mean, for example?

Negotiators in this situation face a choice: push for more precision now and delay the contract signing or sign the deal and hope the ambiguities won’t cause trouble down the road.

As business managers and entrepreneurs, how do we balance the devil in the details with the tradeoffs between precisions and ambiguities?

In a recent article, Robert E. Scott of the University of Virginia Law School proposes a helpful framework for thinking through this fundamental negotiation tradeoff between precision and vagueness.

  • He notes that achieving more contractual specificity has a front-end cost; negotiating takes more time, effort, and expense.


  • Leaving vagueness in the contract reduces front-end costs but increases back-end costs; ambiguity increases the likelihood of contract interpretation issues and, therefore, the likelihood of litigation and subsequent legal costs.

Negotiators need to balance these front-end and back-end costs to determine whether to push for more precision in the deal at hand.  This analysis will lead to differing conclusions dependent on the circumstances and context.

The results will require you to be precise some of the time and vague the remaining time.

This example regarding contracts can easily extend to construction documents, product specifications, and even employment agreements.

Hence, the devil is in the details, sometimes, and sometimes not.

The Bible

Maybe it is appropriate that the phrase the devil is in the details refers to the Devil.

One of the most voiced criticisms of Christians is the Bible is not accurate.  Either it is too vague or is inconsistent or inerrant in its specificity.

To be clear, those accusations are provably false.  Arguments for the inerrancy and accuracy of the Bible have been offered for over two thousand years, and none have been proven.

Nearly all the discussion surrounding the accuracy of the Bible is incorrectly determining the type of genre in which the particular text is written.  Interpreting poetry, for example, is utterly different from interpreting historical narratives.  Poetry has a liberal dose of metaphorical language, and historical records contain a dose of eye-witness accounting.

Much like the previous discussion regarding contracts and the chosen use of specificity versus vagueness, the Bible contains crystal clear details when it is warranted to accomplish the point being made.  And at other times is confusingly vague because the author, God, has decided that those are details better left for a future time.

Given no other alternative, following the maxim of the devil is in the details is good advice.

However, the need for greater or less specificity is often a strategy for businesses to evaluate their business processes.  Specific details can be good, or can pose problems. 

Just like the Author of the Bible, successful business leaders know how and when to use details in a way that enhances what they intend to accomplish.