By mark

2011-09-25 19:10:42 8 Comments

I'm looking for an idiom or saying that I could use when people are focusing too much on small details and not seeing the big picture.

A couple that come to mind are "being penny-wise and pound foolish" and "rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic". However, the former doesn't fit what I'm thinking of because the present activity might not be wise. The latter implies too much about impending doom.

For example, let's say some company is spending all their time refining a small detail in their product, while ignoring a major opportunity shift in the industry. What phrase could I use there?


@user3810626 2019-02-21 17:00:00

How about using bagatelle? From Google dictionary:

  1. a thing of little importance; a very easy task. "dealing with these boats was a mere bagatelle for the world's oldest yacht club"

etymology: mid 17th century (in bagatelle (sense 2)): from French, from Italian bagatella, perhaps from baga ‘baggage’ or from a diminutive of Latin baca ‘berry’. bagatelle (sense 1) dates from the early 19th century.

If you're focused on bagatelles, you're avoiding the big picture, the hard stuff, etc.

@Laurel 2019-02-21 18:25:35

When you use a quote from someone else, you MUST cite where you found it and use quote formatting to indicate it's a direct quote.

@Sandeep D 2014-02-04 12:32:07

go off on a tangent

to pursue a somewhat related or irrelevant course while neglecting the main subject. Source-

@Chenmunka 2014-02-04 12:09:56

When concentrating too much on refining a product, as in your example, then:

Gilding the lily

is commonly used.

@virmaior 2014-02-04 13:03:52

commonly seems like quite the stretch based on this ngram:…

@Jonno 2013-03-06 23:24:30

pedant. For example, some pedant decided that I have to use at least 30 characters to have this answer accepted.

@Andrew Leach 2013-03-06 23:26:49

Pedants don't focus on unimportant details. Pedants think the details are important. Perhaps that demonstrates your point.

@Brian Nixon 2012-06-30 21:17:33

Expending disproportionate effort on trivial matters is sometimes known as bike­shedding, or Parkinson’s Law of Triviality.

Jeff blogged about the phenomenon in the context of it being a problem on Stack Overflow...

@mark 2012-07-11 18:39:44

This captures exactly what I was referring to, thanks!

@Bebe 2011-10-12 19:56:10

Strain a gnat and swallow a camel. Getting so focused on tiny details that you end up making a huge mistake in the big scheme of things. New Testament idiom spoken by Jesus in Matthew, chapter 23, verse 24.

@Brian Hooper 2011-09-26 09:15:33

If I rightly recall, Laurence Peter called it "side issue specialism" in The Peter Principle (here)

Look after the molehills and the mountains will take care of themselves.

@JeffSahol 2011-09-25 21:45:54

Majoring on the minors

carries the idea of the effort going to waste, without the implication that there is a problem with perception. Also, my personal favorite,

chasing rabbits

means going off on tangents, but is less formal and not as well-defined...someone might consider it a Jefferson Airplane reference :).

@Unsliced 2011-09-26 06:11:16

Some might consider chasing rabbits an Alice In Wonderland reference.

@JeffSahol 2011-09-26 10:52:54

Thanks @Unsliced, I cannot believe I didn't realize that. That is where JA got it, too...the link is to lyrics for "Go Ask Alice". I had thought it came from observation of how silly dogs look when they chase rabbits.

@Chris A. Waters 2011-09-26 01:18:53

Does "penny wise but pound foolish" fit?

@Hauser 2011-09-26 00:57:06

  • bean counter (as a idiom, also used in German)
  • not having a holistic view (next to your missing the big picture which is imho the best)

@D Krueger 2011-09-25 21:49:03

Picking up pennies in front of a steamroller.

@nicholas ainsworth 2011-09-25 21:04:36

I think ' Missing the plot ' would be appropriate.

@Tom Au 2011-09-25 20:12:12

One word I've seen used is nitpicking.

@Callithumpian 2011-09-25 19:36:45

cannot see the forest for the trees

fail to grasp the main issue because of overattention to details.


@Hauser 2011-09-26 01:01:15

often used in philosophy as example for category mistake (fallacy)

@haha 2016-01-08 22:12:44

Also, 'can't see the wood for the trees'.

@Hugo 2011-09-25 19:19:10

Some suggestions:

  • Can't see the wood for the trees
  • Has their priorities wrong
  • Focusing on the trivial
  • Wasting time on the trivial

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