Is it the little things that matter — small kindnesses, inconspicuous acts of generosity and moments of undivided attention? We were all famously told years back, ‘Not to sweat the small stuff,’ but I’m not so sure that’s true. Keeping the bigger picture in mind and engineering our lives to ensure that we have the major themes in place is undoubtedly important, but so is the realisation that the big stuff is comprised of the detail.

It is in the detail that excellence lies, and inattention to the finer points of anything we do leads us inevitably down the road toward mediocrity. Let me give you an unexpected example.

Whether you are a Harry Potter fan or not, I would defy you not to be impressed by a visit to the original film sets at the Leavesden Studios, north of London. There, as you walk through the great hall and peer into Dumbledore’s Study, the Gryffindor Common Room and the Potions Laboratory you will of course see immediately recognisable spaces, but you will also see much more. Look closely and you will spy details that could never have been seen on film. The care and attention with which the rooms are dressed and the level of intricate detail is simply breathtaking. On the Common Room notice board every hand written flyer tells you exactly what to expect of the forthcoming quidditch practices and where to report any lost toads. In the Potions Laboratory, you can see the benches and the cauldrons and you can almost hear the swish of Professor Snape’s robes, but look on the shelves and there you can start to marvel. Lining shelf upon shelf there are literally hundreds of glass jars and vials of the purported magical ingredients all with intricately handwritten labels. These would never have been visible in the final films, so why bother?

The production crew on the Potter films strove to create a convincing world and part of that was to ensure that every detail was consistent and believable. The actors and the film crew could see these details even if the cinema-goers could not, and doubtless that was the intention. The detail matters and getting the detail right is a hallmark of excellence. By taking the effort to make these sets as convincing as possible, the production teams were declaring unequivocally the standards required by everyone involved in the project, and the bar was firmly set at high.



Large scale projects are an enormous challenge, not because they present single big problems, but, rather, because they demand us to do tens of thousands of small things well, and consistently well. This is just as true in the world of clinical research as it is in filmmaking. The quality of our work in clinical research has to be of the highest standards possible, because the stakes are so high. Our findings influence and shape healthcare not just for those involved in the study, but also for countless others across the globe in the years and decades ahead. And the way we ensure this quality standard is to make sure we think about the quality of the detail in our work. Like those British filmmakers, just because something will not be obvious, does not mean that it can be skimped or done half-heartedly. It is about creating a culture of excellence and attention to detail that pervades the work and which ultimately shapes the finished product.

In our work, we need to have a zero-tolerance for the mediocre and we should find the merely ‘good enough’ unacceptable. Instead, we need to replace these approaches with a desire for the best we can do. It may require more effort, sometimes more resources, but always a different attitude.   When we understand that excellence is indeed in the detail, we may also come to realise that it is the small things that really do matter.

© Allan Gaw 2017


Now available in paperback…

Testing the Waters: Lessons from the History of Drug Research

What can we learn from the past that may be relevant to modern drug research?

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“I cannot recommend it highly enough: even if you read nothing else about the origins of drug research and what it can (should?) teach us, read this….This is a ‘buy’.”  Madhu Davis review in Pharmaceutical Physician May 2016.

My other books currently available on kindle:

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