Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

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?

share|improve this question
    
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
add comment

14 Answers 14

up vote 1 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...

share|improve this answer
    
This captures exactly what I was referring to, thanks! –  mark Jul 11 '12 at 18:39
add comment

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

share|improve this answer
add comment

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

Gilding the lily

is commonly used.

share|improve this answer
    
commonly seems like quite the stretch based on this ngram: books.google.com/ngrams/… –  virmaior Feb 4 at 13:03
add comment

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

share|improve this answer
    
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
add comment

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.

share|improve this answer
add comment

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.

share|improve this answer
add comment

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 :).

share|improve this answer
1  
Some might consider chasing rabbits an Alice In Wonderland reference. –  Unsliced Sep 26 '11 at 6:11
1  
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
add comment

Does "penny wise but pound foolish" fit?

share|improve this answer
    
+1 I like it, thanks! –  Arjang Oct 13 '11 at 0:19
add comment
  • 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)
share|improve this answer
add comment

Picking up pennies in front of a steamroller.

share|improve this answer
add comment

I think ' Missing the plot ' would be appropriate.

share|improve this answer
add comment

One word I've seen used is nitpicking.

share|improve this answer
add comment

cannot see the forest for the trees

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

NOAD

share|improve this answer
1  
often used in philosophy as example for category mistake (fallacy) –  Hauser Sep 26 '11 at 1:01
add comment

Some suggestions:

  • Can't see the wood for the trees
  • Has their priorities wrong
  • Focusing on the trivial
  • Wasting time on the trivial
share|improve this answer
add comment

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.