Is there a term for losing sight of the overall goal and instead fixating on the tactical objectives initially intended as a means to said goal?

I see this happening in large corporate culture, politics, and religion,(human nature in general). Often times the means to the end supplant the goal in terms of decision making.

  • There's an idiom - not seeing the forest for the trees.
    – Phil Sweet
    Commented Mar 29, 2018 at 16:02
  • More commonly in British English, not seeing the wood for the trees
    – Chris H
    Commented Mar 29, 2018 at 16:30
  • That's good and very true. I am more focused on how that alters our actions and we completely reorient based on not seeing the forest for the trees. It's a form of unconscious redirection...? Commented Mar 29, 2018 at 16:35
  • Dictionaries seem to have missed bureaucrafication (modifications to something in preparation for, or as a result of, being run through the bureaucratic mill) as opposed to bureaucratization (meaning to create or expand a bureaucracy).
    – Phil Sweet
    Commented Mar 29, 2018 at 16:51
  • Do you want an idiom or will any term do? Do you prefer corporatese or ordinary vernacular?
    – Zebrafish
    Commented Mar 29, 2018 at 16:54

5 Answers 5


There is a word, a term I first learned when studying the discipline of logistics, that fits: suboptimization.

Suboptimization refers to focusing on improving the technical function of a specific procedure without regard to the resulting effects such improvement may have on the overall process. It is best understood through the agency of example.

Let us say you maintain a conveyor system composed of belts, rollers, drive motors, et cetera. You discover a wonderful new lubricant that reduces friction in the rollers and the drive system causing the belt to run 20% faster. In an effort to make the conveyor belt run as efficiently as possible, you apply the lubricant liberally. The belt speeds up. The warehouse workers responsible for taking cartons off the end of the belt and packing them into a truck can no longer keep up with the increased speed of delivery and one out of every 5 boxes hits the floor -- damaging the product contained therein. What should be a 20% increase in efficiency, turns into a 17% loss of product.


There are a number of expressions for lamenting disordered focus or priorities.

A popular buzzword is bikeshedding, describing a scenario where an irrational amount of time and energy is devoted to minor problems or questions as opposed to the central one.

C. Northcote Parkinson used the example of a (fictional) committee designing a nuclear power plant devoting disproportionate time to the design of a shed for employee bicycles as opposed the design of the plant itself to demonstrate his law of triviality. The term gained currency much more recently, however, in an email from developer Poul-Henning Kamp to BSD developers lamenting that the more minor an issue, the more people feel they are qualified to comment on it, and thus it was commentary on the trivialities that was filling his inbox.

A separate idiom which should be self-explanatory is the tail wagging the dog, where something which should be ancillary ends up controlling the direction of the overall affair.

To be so caught up in minor details as to fail to appreciate the overall situation is to miss the forest for the trees. This idiom is expressed in a variety of ways, especially someone who can't see the wood for the trees or doesn't see the woods for the trees. For means because of, which is not so common nowadays, but the expression is quite old, dating at least to the 16th century as covered in Etymology of the phrase "cannot see the forest for the trees".


Tunnel vision

2 : extreme narrowness of viewpoint : narrow-mindedness; also : single-minded concentration on one objective

"Tunnel Vision." Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 29 Mar. 2018. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/tunnel%20vision

One concomitant of rationality is our tendency to "tunnel vision," that is, our need to view a multidimensional problem as if it has only one or two dimensions." One manifestation of such tunnel vision is the current propensity to reduce the complexities of social decision making to just the economically relevant issues.

Earth Summit Ethics: Toward a Reconstructive Postmodern Philosophy of Environmental Education edited by J. Baird Callicott, Fernando J. R. da Rocha
Google Books snippet


A colloquial and informal way would be:
Losing sight of the target.

misplaced priorities

If you describe a feeling or action as misplaced, you are critical of it because you think it is inappropriate, or directed towards the wrong thing or person.

"A telling sign of misplaced priorities is the concentration on health, not environmental issues." Collins Dictionary


As in:

Blinkered in losing sight of the overall goal, we focused in error on the tactical objectives initially intended as a means to said goal?


considering only a narrow point of view.


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