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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?

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Possible duplicate: english.stackexchange.com/questions/41508/… – Hugo Sep 25 '11 at 19:16
thanks @aediaλ that link was excellent, as well as the links within that page – mark Sep 28 '11 at 23:33

14 Answers 14

up vote 6 down vote accepted

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...

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This captures exactly what I was referring to, thanks! – mark Jul 11 '12 at 18:39

cannot see the forest for the trees

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


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often used in philosophy as example for category mistake (fallacy) – Hauser Sep 26 '11 at 1:01
Also, 'can't see the wood for the trees'. – haha Jan 8 at 22:12

One word I've seen used is nitpicking.

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Does "penny wise but pound foolish" fit?

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+1 I like it, thanks! – Arjang Oct 13 '11 at 0:19

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 :).

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Some might consider chasing rabbits an Alice In Wonderland reference. – Unsliced Sep 26 '11 at 6:11
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. – JeffSahol Sep 26 '11 at 10:52
very helpful, thanks! – mark Sep 28 '11 at 23:34

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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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.

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Picking up pennies in front of a steamroller.

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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.

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

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Pedants don't focus on unimportant details. Pedants think the details are important. Perhaps that demonstrates your point. – Andrew Leach Mar 6 '13 at 23:26

I think ' Missing the plot ' would be appropriate.

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

Gilding the lily

is commonly used.

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commonly seems like quite the stretch based on this ngram: books.google.com/ngrams/… – virmaior Feb 4 '14 at 13:03

go off on a tangent

to pursue a somewhat related or irrelevant course while neglecting the main subject. Source- http://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/go+off+on+a+tangent

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