Good Information is the Foundation of Good Decision Making
Some decisions we make are life-changing, like my decision to volunteer for the Army during the Viet Nam war. Other decisions are not life changing at all, as my decision this morning to buy an extra onion bagel.
Yet, no matter the decision, every decision is built on a foundation of information. And just as you need good foundations to build good buildings, you need good information to make good decisions.
If the goal is to make the best decisions (and I think it should be) then what’s actionable must be to get the best information possible, each and every time you make a decision. Whether the decision is trivial or does not matter. In fact, since getting good information is a skill, you can practice on the trivial stuff so you will be ready for the important stuff.
When I’m in bed in the morning my decision to sleep longer or get up to go to work is based on knowing the correct time, knowing what I have to do to get ready, knowing what traffic will be like, and knowing if the boss is going to be there or not. Deciding to get gas in the car is based on knowing how much gas is actually in the tank and knowing where the gas stations are. Deciding when to leave for the airport to catch a flight is based on knowing when the plane is leaving and how long it takes to get to the airport. Deciding how much money to spend at the market is based on knowing how much I have and what I want/have to buy.
Every decision I make is based on having good information. Fortunately, for the most part, getting information “good enough” to make “good enough” decisions are not too hard. I know the alarm clock is accurate enough. I know the gas gauge is accurate enough. I know generally what time the plane leaves and have a pretty good idea of how long it takes to get to the airport at a particular time of day. And I know approximately how much money I have to spend and pretty much what I want/have to buy. As a result, for the most part, I make pretty good decisions. This is why I can function fairly well.
This is also why we, as a society can function fairly well. For the most part, we have good enough information to make good enough decisions.
There are around 10 thousand planes in the sky right now not crashing because we make pretty good decisions about how to take off, fly, and land a plane.
There are billions of people right now driving in cars and trucks and not crashing because we are pretty good at using the information we have to drive without crashing into each other.
But, simply functioning well enough may not be sufficient for you. You may want to function better than you do today. You may want to function at the highest level possible. You may want to beat out your competitors for that new job. You may want to do better than average with your investments.
You want to flourish. You want to excel. You want to beat your competition. You want to do something that’s hard, that’s never been tried before. In today’s competitive marketplace, simply functioning well enough might leave you behind. Merely surviving in today’s competitive world might leave you with just the scraps.
Remember the joke I told earlier about the 2 guys in the woods who see a bear. Remember the moral of the story was that you don’t have to outrun the bear; you just have to outrun your competitors.
Fortunately, since your competitors face all the same obstacles to getting the best information you do, all you have to do win is to overcome the information obstacles better than your competitors.
Since everyone faces the same obstacles it’s not necessary to overcome all the obstacles completely, it’s only necessary to overcome them better than your competitors
If you don’t like looking at life as a competition, and there are many out there that don’t, here’s another way to look at it. Many people look at life where the goal is not a competition with someone else, but the goal is simply to maximize their own opportunities. These people just try to be the best at everything they do, for no other reason than personal satisfaction.
You could set a goal to lose more weight, reduce your cholesterol, take better photographs, cook better, or save more money – not to beat out any competitor, but just because you want to. Yet, no matter the goals you personally embrace to get you through the day, the same barriers to getting good information applies to personal goals as well as competitive goals.
And it’s not only personal decisions we make that this applies. In your business, there are obviously a lot of decisions were getting the best information would be a good thing. Pricing a product, choosing a vendor, or hiring someone are just a few examples that come to mind.
Everything I say here applies to both personal and business situations. Good decisions are based on a foundation of good information, no matter what situation you’re in.
Let’s go back to the intent of Communication. The intent is to solve some problem.
The goal of this book is to help you be more successful by helping you make better decisions. And better decisions come from having better information. And better information comes from better communication.
You cannot make good decisions without good information but good information is useless if you cannot get it to the right people at the right time. And good decisions require good communication but good communication is useless unless you have good information to communicate.
With that in mind, let me clearly say that this lesson, on getting good information, and the last Course, on improving communication, are the two most important Courses for the School. These two Courses need to go together because even if you manage to get the best information it won’t do any good if you cannot get it to the right people at the right time. Said another way, good decisions require good communication but good communication is useless unless you have good information to communicate.
I tend to view things as a journey where I have a starting point, an end point, and a plan to get me from where I am to where I want to go. Applying this approach to the goal of getting good information, I’ve come up with three things I need to do:
- I need to identify my Starting Point – What I already know
- I need to identify my End Point – What I need to know
- I need a Plan to get the Information I need – A plan for how I get the best information and a plan to overcome the obstacles that might prevent me from getting it.
Of these three things, #1 & #2 are usually not too much of a problem. I usually know what I know -my starting point – and I usually know what I need to know – my endpoint.
In this clip from Stargate Jackson says, to plot a course you need 7 points; 6 points for the destination, and 1 point for the origination. This fits here. It also fits in the Course on Learning About Yourself.”
The biggest problem is usually #3 – coming up with a plan to get the information I need.
What’s actionable about this Course are my suggestions for some tools to help with #3. I will suggest skills to maximize good information and minimize bad information. Think of it like glasses for those that are nearsighted, a hearing aid for those with hearing problems, a crutch for someone with a broken foot, or a power saw for a carpenter. I’m going to present various tools to help get the best information.
Going back to my salad bar analogy (used in the Introduction Course) what I’m offering are a number of things you can use to make better decisions – you then can decide which ones to use in which situations.
But before I present the specific tools to you, it’s best if I provide the technical foundation for these tools. Think of it this way; the more an athlete or a dancer understands about physiology, the more a nuclear scientist understands about particle physics, the more a doctor understands about chemistry, or the more a race car driver understands about aerodynamics and how cars work, the better they will all be at what they do. So, following that logic, the more you understand what information is and how it’s used, the better you will be at getting the best information for every decision you have to make.
Honest Self Evaluation
When it comes to getting information, people tend to be somewhere between two ends of a continuum. At one end of the continuum are people that go through life accepting information they get as it is. They don’t challenge the information presented to them. They watch the news, read a report, or hear an analysis and accept the information as is. On the other end of the spectrum are people that treat all information as suspect. They question, they review, they double check, they experiment, and they do research. They question everything.
Clearly there must be a balance between accepting everything and questioning everything. But, also clearly that exact balance point changes for every situation.
Of the two kinds of people, I personally tend to be one of those that questions everything. I start from a premise that all information can be wrong. So I’m constantly verifying it. Here is an example. Let’s say my goal is to do some spring planting. One piece of information that’s important to me is the weather. I watch the Weather Channel and see they are predicting rain. That piece of information is very valuable because if it snows I can’t work in the yard. So I check the Internet and see what the Internet says. I might even watch the local news to see what they say. I’m going to double, triple, or quadruple check the weather. Because I know the weather can change and the weather forecasters can be wrong, And, I’m going to watch it often to see if it changes.
I always verify information. The more important the decision, the more I verify it.
Remember in the chapter on learning I talked about how honest self-evaluation is critical to learning. Well now let’s put it to the test. Let’s see how honest you can be. Where do you fit on the continuum? Do you tend to accept things people say? Or do you question everything. There’s nothing wrong with either strategy. The point is that you need to know yourself because either strategy has its advantages and disadvantages. The more you know about the particular strategy you use, the better you will be at getting the best information of you.
Here’s an actual example of how I apply this need for verification. Annette and I were planning a trip to Europe to meet Jillian who was studying there. It was important we sit together on the flight home. Because I know that the longer I wait to get our seats assigned the harder it would be to get to sit together, so I arranged for the seats 90 days ahead. Now, here is the point to this story as it relates to verifying information. I’ve experienced situations where the airline changes my seat. I did not want that to happen, so every couple of weeks I went online to verify we are still sitting together. I even called the airline periodically to check. You see the point? It was critical we sit together, but I know that airlines can change planes, which forces a change in seats. What I didn’t want to happen is to get to the airport and find out we are not sitting together and having no options. By verifying the information regularly, I could get a jump on any problems that could have come up.
What is Information
One of the questions on my Masters Degree Comprehensive Exam was, “What is information.” I went into a 3 page discussion of Shannon-Weaver, noise, and entropy. I thought it was a great answer. However, the professor was not as impressed. All he was looking for was a one sentence answer. He was looking for; “Information is the reduction of uncertainty.”
Once he and I talked about my overly verbose answer and the short one sentence answer he was looking for, I agreed with him that looking at information as the reduction of uncertainty actually made a lot of sense. The key thing I learned is look at information for what it does; not what it is. I learned that we should value information by how much it changes behavior.
Let me offer an example. Let’s say you’re trying to decide to take an umbrella and/or a rain poncho to the football game. It’s an easy decision if you know with 100% certainty if it is going to rain or not. The information of whether it will rain reduces your uncertainty. However, someone telling you that the speed of light is 186K miles a second does not in any way reduce your uncertainty about taking a rain coat to the game. While it’s true that the speed of light is 186K miles a second, it doesn’t help you decide to prepare for rain at the football game. If you were trying to reduce your uncertainty about taking a rain coat to the game or not, you’d be much better off turning on the weather channel, rather than the soap opera channel. You would seek out information that would reduce your uncertainty about if it is going to rain or not.
This is why focusing on the goal is so important. If the goal is to decide to take a rain coat or not, then you should focus only on the information about the potential for rain and filter out all other non actionable information.
Not all Information is Equal
Not all information is equal. Some information is correct and useful, while other information is neither correct nor useful. Those that make the best decisions are able to focus on the correct and useful information and filter out the incorrect and useless information.
My decision to get out of bed is based on knowing the correct time. My decision to get gas in the car is built on the belief the gas gauge is accurate.
If the information you use to make these decisions is wrong, inaccurate, or misinterpreted, then your decisions will be wrong, off the mark, or ineffective. If the clock stopped working in the middle of the night, it could be much later than you think and you could stay in bed longer than you wanted. If the gas gauge was not accurate, you could run out of gas. And, if the things learned about a future spouse while dating was not accurate, the marriage could be terrible.
The fundamental key to making good decisions is to get the best information we can.
The better the information the better the decision.
The fundamental key to making good decisions is to get the best information you can; the better the information the better the decision. But, like many things, that is easier said than done.
The following sections will try to provide you an explanation as to why getting good information is hard, with a way to value information so you know what good information is, and a way to overcome the obstacles to getting good information.
A Model for Getting Good Information
To begin with, let me start with an analogy to keep in mind when thinking about getting good information. When you think about decision making you should think of an assembly line, where the end product is the decision, the individual parts going into the end product – the decision – are the bits of information, and the conveyer belt is communication.
When building a product, a higher quality product is the result of higher quality parts and the most efficient system to deliver the right parts at the right time to the right people. When making a decision, a higher quality decision is the result of higher quality information and an efficient system to deliver the higher quality information to the right people at the best possible time.
In a physical assembly line there are all kinds of obstacles that could prevent getting the right parts to the right place at the right time. A truck could break down, or get lost. A clerk could mistakenly pull the wrong parts. The parts manufacturer could deliver the parts to the wrong assembly line. Or the person responsible to assemble the particular part may not know how to do it. It’s so important to get the right parts to the right place at the right time that a whole area of expertise has emerged; it’s called “Logistics.” 
Logistics is to the world of physical things as communication is to the world of decision making. Communication is the logistics of human interaction.
If I was trying to improve an assembly line I would split my focus into two main areas. First I would look at the physical things being assembled. I might look at what the parts are, their quality, and how they fit together. Second I would focus on the process of getting those things to the right people at the right time – the logistics.
In the last Chapter I examined communication as if it were the conveyer belt delivering parts to the assembly line. In this Chapter I’ll examine information as if it were parts we were assembling into an end product. I’ll also examine what information is and how to get the best information.
In researching this section I came across the following quote, “human beings don’t process information, they process meanings.” While I might quibble with this statement a bit, on a fundamental basis I agree with it, in that we need to keep the end goal in mind because that is what others are going to see. People see the finished cake; they don’t see everything that went into the cake to make it.
You too, as decision maker, must keep an eye on the finished decision. Good cooks know that the quality of the end product is based on the quality of the ingredients. As a result they pay close attention to how the cake is made. They pay attention to the freshness of the ingredients and the way the ingredients work together, the proportions of each ingredient, and the tools they use.
So too, good decisions makers understand the quality of the decision is based on the quality of the individual pieces of information used to make the decision and how all the pieces fit together.
The point is you need to pay attention to the end product as well as the things that make up the end product.
The first step in learning to get good information is to get a firm grasp on the reasons getting good information is so difficult. You need to understand the obstacles to getting good information so you can avoid them or overcome them. To that end, I’ll spend time looking at two fundamentals. First I’ll spend time helping you understand the specifics of what information is from a foundational standpoint to help you understand how to maximize the good information you need to make good decisions. Second, I’ll spend a lot of time looking at the biological, cognitive, technological, socio-cultural, and other factors you need to understand to get good information.
Finding The Information Sweet Spot
One of the key morals I’ve taken from the story “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” is that; in life there are often three choices you can make. One choice might be too much, too big, or too fast. Another choice might be too little, too small, too slow. And, as Goldilocks discovered, there is usually a point that is the right amount; the right size, the right softness, or the right speed.
This is critically true with information. It is easy to get too little information or too much information. The problem with too much information is you have to spend time filtering out the extraneous, irrelevant, superfluous, and inappropriate information. The problem with too little information and you miss relevant details.
I can easily apply the Goldilocks moral of finding just the right amount of something to our discussion of getting good information. For every decision there is the right amount of information to make the best decision. Not too much and not too little. I call the point at which information is just right, the “Information Sweet Spot.” The Information Sweet Spot is the point where the amount and type of information is optimal for that specific situation.
What’s Actionable about this is that your goal should be to find the information sweet spot for every decision you make.
Technical Description of Information
You may want to skip over this section. I’m going to go into the technical description of information in great deal because I think it is critically important. It’s not really actionable if you’re not technical, but someone out there might enjoy the discussion. I know I do. I like to break things down to their smallest elements. So, bear with me on this, or just move on to the next section.
To find the best information you need to understand that information is like an onion, with a lot of layers – one on top of another. Whether it’s music, art, writing, talking, or seeing; information builds on itself, starting with the smallest individual pieces of information and moving upward to the largest packages that contain the message. There are trees and there is the forest.
Every human activity is based on this reality. A book is made of up letters and spaces, words, sentences, paragraphs and chapters. The creator of the book adds layer upon layer to create a whole. Finding the best information means coming up with the right combination of letters and spaces that convey meaning. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” is one of the most recognized group of words. Yet it is just a combination of letters, spaces, and punctuation marks.
In music there are notes, stanzas, compositions, symphonies. Even painting works the same way. In all cases the creator is trying to find the right combination of individual parts to get their intent across.
Many technical industries have even codified these layers into specific structures. In telecommunications, it is called the OSI model. 
In Information Systems the different layers are; Bit, Byte, Packet, and Session. In linguistics the different layers are; phonics, syllables, language, words. In physics, there are quarks, electrons, protons, neutrons, atoms, elements, molecules, and things.
What’s actionable is you need to see information in two broad categories, “pieces” and “wholes”. And you need to look at both categories to get the best information. In general the biggest mistake people make is to look only at one or the other in determining what’s actionable. Do you look at the forest? Or do you look at the trees? To get the best information you need to look at both and you need to understand how the “pieces” and the “wholes” fit together to create a complete package.
The word “Synergy” applies here. Synergy means that often “a thing” is much greater than you might expect from just looking at the individual parts. Take the word “fire” as an example. The word itself is made up of four letters: F – I – R – E. Individually they have equal meaning and are not particularly actionable. But put them together and now you have meaning. Further, shout them out in a theater where you smell smoke and those 4 little letters become very actionable and would cause you to leave where you are very rapidly and with an intense sense of urgency.
Sometimes in life all you need are just a few pieces to discern enough to make it actionable. Other times you need the complete package to discern enough to be actionable.
Let’s use music as an example.
This particular song, Yesterday by Lennon and McCartney, if one of my all time favorites. Like every song it is built on notes, stanzas, pauses and rhythmus. Every song has these same basic elements. Yet, the unique combination of these basic elements makes this particular song spectacular and brilliant. Every musician has access to the same basic elements, but only Lennon and McCartney put those elements together in this particular way.
Or how about this example:
Again, I’m not a musician, but I can see the first six notes, “da da da dda, da da da dda.” Notice also the little symbols in addition to the notes. I’ve no idea what they mean, but I’m sure they layer, one on top of another until you get to the total composition.
Bits, Bytes, Packets, Sessions – How the Bits Make up a Whole
My thinking on this subject is greatly influenced by understanding how computers and telecommunication networks work.
In telecommunications networks and in computers the lowest level of information is a binary bit. A transistor, the basic building block of a computer is either on or off. This is a “binary” bit of information. A binary bit is either a “0” or a “1.”
We can use this binary bit for all kinds of things that only need a yes or no answer. A good example is the electrical charging gauge in a car. When I was growing up the electrical charging gauge was actually a gauge like the temperature gauge. But over time it was determined that all you really need to know is if the charging system is working or not. So the gauge was replaced with a light. The light is either on or off.
Another example is Paul Revere.
You know the poem by Longfellow, “One if by land, two if by sea.” The goal was to provide information about the route the British troops were using to advance on Concord. Revere started with a plan to send a rider with the information. The problem Revere saw was that there was a risk the rider could have gotten stopped by the British. So he decided to use lights as a redundant plan just in case. Revere and his men agreed to a simple system, one lantern if the British chose the longer land route and two lanterns if they chose the shorter water route.
Because the message was simple two lights were sufficient. However, if he needed to say how many British troops, their speed, or their makeup, then the light system would not have worked as well.
After a “bit” we move up to a “byte.” A byte is a small grouping of bits. In computers and communication, bytes can be any length but are usually 4, 8, 16, 32, or 64 bits long.
Here are a couple of charts that demonstrate how bits can be combined to indicate ever increasing amounts of information.
As I said in the chart above, a byte with 64 bits, can represent 65,636 states, which might seem like a lot but it isn’t really. In order to handle information that has more than states we combine bytes into groups called packets.
As with bytes, packets can have different lengths. The length of the packet varies depending on any number of criteria.
At the highest level, layered on top of packets, we have sessions. A session can have multiple packets going back and forth.
Using writing as another example, letters are the “bits,” words are the “bytes,” sentences the “packets” and letters or books are the “sessions.”
Let’s follow this writing example for a while and see where that gets us.
A single “letter” rarely has enough meaning to take action. But there are many examples were a single word is actionable. The word “fire” can be very actionable, either as a reason to leave a building or to set fire to a fuse that ignites a cannon. Or the words “Go,” “Come,” or “Sit” are all very actionable.
But normally, to be actionable, we need groups of words to form a sentence . “Please go to the store and buy some beets for our salad tonight”. Or, “throw out the trash.”
To provide a visual example of how we start with individual bits and by combining them in ever more meaningfull groups we get ever more meaningful information.
- Zero-order approximation (symbols independent and equally probable)
- XFOML RXKHRJFFJUJ ZLPWCFWKCYJ FFJEYVKCQSGHYD QPAAMKBZAACIBZLHJQD
- First-order approximations (symbols independent but with frequencies of English text)
- OCRO HLI RGWR NMIELWIS EU LL NBRESEBYA TH EEI ALHENHTTPA OOBTTVA NAH BRL.
- Second-order approximation (diagram structure as in English)
- ON IE ANTSOUTINYS ARE T INCTORE ST BE SDEMY ACHIN D ILONASIVE TUCOOWE AT TEASONARE FUSO TIZIN ANDY TOBE SCECE CTISBE
- Third-order approximation (trigram structure as in English).
- IN NO IST LAT WHEY CRATICT FROURE BRIS GROCID PONDENOME OF DEMONSTRURES OF THE REPTAGIN IS REGOACTIONA OF CRE.
- Fourth-order approximation (words are independent but with their appropriate frequencies).
- REPRESENTING AND SPEEDILY IS AN GOOD APT OR COME CAN DIFFERENT NATURAL HERE HE THE A IN CAME THE TO OF TO EXPERT GRAY COME TO FURNISHES THE LINE MESSAGE HAND BE THERE
- Fifth-order approximation (word transition probabilities are correct but no context is included).
- THE HEAD WAS IN FRONT OF ALL OTHERS.
- Sixth-order approximation (word structure and context is correct).
- I’M WRITING THIS TO SHOW HOW BITS OF INFORMATION GAIN MEANING ONLY FROM THE ENTIRE CONTEXT THEY ARE IN.
At this point I want to specifically point out some of the actionable things from this discussion.
By understanding the intent of the entire session it is possible to overcome individual errors in the bits of information.
For example: Take the following sentence: I’M WRITTING THIS TO SHOW HOW BITS OF INFORMAITON GAIN MEANING ONLY FROM THE ENTIRE CONTEXT THEY ARE IN.
Notice the spelling errors. They should not have prevented you from getting the intent of the message. If you know the intent you can overcome some errors in the individual pieces of information.
By understanding that a message is made up of the individual pieces, you can look for meaning in the individual pieces. Punctuation serves this purpose.
For example: He eats; shoots and leaves (meaning he is an animal that likes to eat plants like shoots and leaves). Or; He eats, shoots, and leaves. (Meaning he was at a restaurant, he then took out a gun, shot a few people, and then left). Same words but the punctuation provided the meaning.
The Road System as a Model to think of Information
One way to think of this is to compare information moving around to the road system.
The roads are the communication network and the cars and trucks are the information packets traveling around. Each car is usually starting from a different place and going to a different place, just as each packet could have a unique “from” address, a unique “to” address. Also, each car or truck has different stuff inside, just as each packet can have different bits of information inside.
The similarity between packet networks and the road system goes further. Since each packet as its own from address and to address, each packet can take a different route. There are faster routes or slower routes depending on what is required. And, like the road system, packets can take detours if there is a blockage.
Moreover, while all cars may look alike from the outside, the contents of the cares can be vastly different. One car can be an ambulance rushing an accident victim to the hospital. Another car can have a doctor following the accident victim to the hospital. Another car can have a man coming home from work. Another car can have a teenager off to a big date.
Summary of this section
We are now at an important transition point. So let me summarize what I’ve been talking about up to now and explain where I’m going next.
Up to now I’ve been trying to do two things. I’ve been trying to explain what information is and why it is important for you to understand what information is. Making decisions is like cooking. A cook has to pay attention to the individual parts, how those parts fit together, and the tools they use. But cooks also have to pay attention to the goal. Cooks understand that people only see the finished product. It’s the same with decision making! You have to pay close attention to the individual pieces of information. But you also have to pay attention to the goal you’re trying to achieve. The more you know and understand both, the individual pieces of information and the goal you’re trying to achieve, the better you will be at getting good information.
Before I offer my specific suggestions on the skills you should sharpen to overcome the obstacles to getting good information, I need to explain the importance of setting a “value” to information and I need to offer some ways on how to set that value.
The title of this chapter is “Getting GOOD information.” The word GOOD implies some value judgment. Saying something is “good” implies that there is some standard or scale you measure a thing by. The word “good” implies that the thing is compared to something else. If there is a good, then there is a bad, better, worse, best, or worst.
Based on everything I said up to this point, what I’m about to say should come as no surprise; Information should be valued by how much it will change your behavior. And as I’ve said a number of times before, and will probably say a few more times, how much behavior change some piece of information causes is the measure of how actionable that piece of information is.
I value a watch by how well it keeps time and do I need to tell time. I value a car by how well it gets me from point A to point B and how badly I need to go from point A to point B. I value the weather report by how well it prepares me for the day. In all these cases the value of the information is determined by how actionable it is.
A key point to understand is that unlike most other commodities, the value of information varies widely depending on a whole lot of independent and often times subjective, illogical, and arbitrary variables.
The Value of Information is not like most commodities. It can vary depending on a large number of seemingly arbitrary and often time extremely subjective factors.
The value of most other commodities remains fairly stable over time. When the value of those commodities does change, the change is fairly understandable and predictable. Gold is valued by how pure it is. Runners are valued by how fast they is. Gems are valued by how rare they are. Machines are valued by how well they perform the function they were designed for. Companies are valued by how much money they make.
These measures tend to remain fairly stable over time and situation. Absent a global crash, the price of gold will be pretty much the same tomorrow as it is today. The value of my car is going to be pretty much the same tomorrow as it is today. And, while cars do depreciate in value over time, and the price of gold does move up and down over time, that rate of depreciation for the car, or the rate of change for gold is fairly understandable and knowable. Other than being on a life raft in the middle of the ocean (not a very likely scenario for most people), the value of gold is set and will not vary much day to day or place to place.
Information, however, can go from no value or even a negative value to great value depending on the specific situation. If I’m going outside to watch my kids soccer, the weather report can be very valuable. If I’m home in bed with no intention of going outside, the weather report can have no value at all.
One way to determine the value of information is to see how much you’re willing to pay for it. A few years ago I used to go to the horse races a lot. When I got to the track, I would buy a Racing Form and something called “Bernie’s Best Bets,”. The Racing Form provided information on the horse’s previous races and Bernie provided recommendations. Both the Racing form Bernie’s Best Bets cost me a few dollars, but I deemed them worth the money. I thought the information actionable enough to spend money on it.
I subscribe to Consumer Reports because the information in Consumer Reports has value to me. I’m willing to pay the $14 a year for the magazine, because I think the information in it is worth that much. I wouldn’t pay $100 a year for it. Another example would be newspapers. I get my news from the Internet. I wouldn’t pay for a newspaper. Annette, on the other hand, likes getting a newspaper and she’s willing to pay for it. Clearly, I value the information in a newspaper less than Annette. Annette however, does not subscribe or read Consumer reports. She would not pay for that information. Do you see my point? Annette and I value information differently. Everyone values information differently.
Some people subscribe to the Wall Street Journal because they find the information actionable. Others would never pay for it because they don’t find the information that valuable.
Do you remember a thing called the, “TV Guide.” I do! For those that don’t know it was a weekly magazine that listed all the TV Shows for the week. We lived by it when I was kid. We didn’t have a lot of money, but my parents believed the information contained in it was valuable enough to spend the money on. Today, no one I know buys TV Guide. Other sources of information have replaced it.
Good and Bad Information
Remember back in the Chapter on Learning I talked about a learning continuum. Well, just as there is a learning continuum, there is an information continuum.
At one end of the information continuum is great information that leads you to great decisions. At the other end of the information continuum is horrible information that leads you to terrible decisions.
The goal then is to place all the information you have on this continuum so you can use it wisely. You need to know what information is highly positive and what information highly negative. The value of information is determined by where it is on this continuum.
The Better you understand your goal; the better you can determine the most accurate value of the information for you!
Transition to the next section
There 4 things you need to find the “value” of Information:
- Understand the Goal of the Decision
- Understand what is actionable in the decision
- Understand the situation
- Understand the difference between data, facts, and conclusions.
I think it’s important to describe each of these things in detail so you can maximize your efforts to get good information.
Understanding the goal
As I’ve said before many times, the first step in any activity is to determine your goal. The better you are at understanding your goal, the better you’ll be at valuing information.
We live in an information rich environment. There is more information available than we need. So it’s critical that we filter the information and focus on what’s the most actionable. Focusing on the goal helps you know what’s important and what’s not, what’s necessary and what’s unnecessary! If your goal is to pick out what to wear for the day, the fact that Heineken uses special yeast in the brewing process, while interesting, does not help you achieve your goal of picking out what to wear, and is therefore not actionable.
If your goal is to get gas at the cheapest station on your way to work, then the fact that a gas station does or does not sell donuts is of little value. The only two pieces of information of any value are; what is the cost of the gas, and is it on the way to work.
However, if your goal is to get donuts with your gas, then whether there are donuts or not becomes valuable information. And let’s go further with this. If your goal is to get donuts then you need to know if they sell donuts. And if your goal is to get “fresh” donuts, then you need to know how fresh they are. Going further, if your goal is to get gas, at a place on the way to work, where the price is average, and that sells fresh lemon filled donuts. Now all those things have value.
To further make my point, let me go even one step further. Let’s say your goal is to get gas, at a place on the way to work, with good prices, that sells fresh lemon filled donuts, AND LOSE WEIGHT. Now you have just massively increased the information needed to get into the information sweet spot. Now you have to consider how do you eat a lemon filled donut and lose weight at the same time. You have to consider how many calories a lemon filled donut is. You have to consider how many calories are you going to have that day and if you are going to exercise to work off that lemon filled donut. You might even want to find out if there is such a thing as a very low calorie lemon filled donut. Or perhaps there is a diet that allows for lemon filled donuts.
Here is a chart that describes what I am trying to present.
When the goal was just to get gas on the way to work you only needed a couple of pieces of information. But as you expand your goal, the information needed to achieve that goal also expands.
Setting a goal in any activity is critical. Let me use another example to show you how this works in your everyday life. We were invited to a Superbowl party at our friend’s house. Annette asked me if I wanted to go. The decision then is; to go or not go to the party. The first step is to decide on the goal. One goal is to watch the Superbowl. Another goal is to be with friends. I can fulfill both goals by going to the party. So we decided to go.
Here is another example. I have learned in my 26+ years of marriage that if Annette is happy, I’m happy. So my goal in making any decision that affects Annette is to make Annette happy. So the most important information I need is to find out what makes Annette happy.
Understanding Actionable Information
So here we are; page 158 and we finally get to the title of the book. Many of you probably already know where I’m going with this by now. But it might be useful to actually go though the logic just in case.
Let me start with the most important statement I can make about information; the best way to value information is to look at what it does; not what it is.
The Best Way to Value Information is to look at what it does; not what it is!
If information makes you do something that you would not normally do, than that information has value. And the more it will cause you to change your behavior the more value it has. The more it makes you change your behavior in a positive way, the more it has positive value.
I call this connection between the individual pieces of information and the ability of that information to cause a change in your behavior, “Actionable Information.” The more it’s actionable the more it can cause a change in behavior.
- My boss sends me a lead to a potential customer. I call that potential customer. The sales lead was actionable. It caused me to take action.
- I looked at the paper and saw the football game was going to be on at 8 PM, I thought it was going to be at 3 PM. I told Annette we need to change our dinner plans because I wanted to be home to watch the game. The information that the game was at 8PM was actionable.
- My landscaper was going to start work on Monday, but it started to rain, so he decided not to start work. The rain was actionable for him.
- We were watching the news and they were talking about how Tilapia was being raised in polluted waters. Annette decided that she was going to stop buying tilapia. The news story was actionable. It caused Annette to take action and stop buying tilapia.
- I saw an advertisement for Red Lobster that said their “Endless Shrimp Special” was ending on Friday. I made plans to go to Red Lobster before Friday
- I came out to my car and noticed a tire was low, so I stopped and filled it up. The low tire was actionable.
- The Oil Maintenance light came on, so I brought the car in to have the oil changed.
- We started our first fire of the season and the house started to fill up with smoke because the flue was closed. The smoke in the house was actionable so I opened the flue.
- I looked at my checking account balance and saw that it was too low to cover some checks I had written. I transferred money from savings to checking.
- Post Office
- The mailman looks at my address on piece of mail and delivers it to my house.
- A thermostat turns on when the temperature gets to a certain point. The temperature is actionable to the thermostat.
- When it gets hot we sweat. Temperature is actionable to our bodies
All the above are examples are of Actionable Information. But, it is just as important to note that not all the information that is presented to us on a given day is actionable.
It also might be very helpful to understand actionable information by looking at some examples of non-actionable information.
Please note that this information could be actionable to others, it’s just some examples that are not actionable to me at a particular time.
- We got an announcement that the VP of Customer Service has changed. So what? I did not know the old VP, I don’t care about the new VP, and I have no interaction with them.
- We announced our 3rd quarter results were on target, so no changes.
- The weather report says it may snow next week. But I’m going to be traveling next week so I don’t care what the weather will be. Now if it said it was going to snow that morning that would be actionable.
- Post Office
- The mailman picks up my outgoing mail. The physical address of the person I’m sending the letter to is not actionable to the mailman. All the mailman needs to know when he picks up my mail is that it’s outgoing and needs to be put into the outgoing mail sorting bin. If the mailman that picks up my mail does the sorting then the Zip code is actionable, but the specific address is not actionable. The physical address is only actionable to the mail carrier that delivers to the end address.
- The home mortgage rate goes down. Since I’m not interested in refinancing my home, it’s not actionable.
Notice that I used the example of the weather report saying it was going to snow next week and I said that was not actionable to me. However, it may be very actionable to my landscaper that needs to schedule his crews. To my landscaper snow means snow removal and that means he will need more people. If the landscaper sees it’s going to snow next week, he better start to make sure that he can get the extra crews he’ll need. So, what is not actionable to me, may be very actionable to someone else.
Actionable Information – Will a particular piece (bit, byte, packet, or session) cause me to change my behavior.
If information causes you to change behavior then it’s actionable. If it does not then it’s not actionable.
Accuracy of the Actionable Information
An important aspect of information is that information is much like tape measure in that there are various levels of accuracy.
Notice that on a tape measure you can measure at 1 inch, ½ inch, ¼ inch, and so on. The amount precision depends on the situation. Sometimes you don’t need much precision; other times you do. The goal will determine the required accuracy.
This is where most people screw up. They either look for more accuracy then they need wasting time and energy, or they don’t get the accuracy they need and miss the target.
Just as there is an information sweet spot there is an accuracy sweet spot
Time should be spent on determining the level of accuracy needed with every decision. How much time you are willing to spend will depend on the importance of the decision!
Technological model of actionable information
Many of you might need no further examples of “Actionable information.” But, then again, some of the more technical of you may. To you techies out there, I offer this section. You are welcome to skip over this either if you understand what I’m trying to say already or if you are not particularly interested in a more technical view of things. But, if you are like me and enjoy a good technical example, you may like this.
Much of my view of actionable information is based on my understanding of how machines work in general and specifically how computers work.
Fundamentally, machines are designed to achieve some goal. They are designed to act on some input. In this context, the input is the actionable information.
The designers of the machine know the goal of the machine and know what needs to be done, so they design the machine to do something based on that actionable information.
Mechanical Examples of Actionable information
There are many great examples of how machines have been designed through the ages to act on actionable information.
Let me take a basic example; the lever.
There are four pieces of actionable information for a lever:
- Load – How heavy?
- Force – How much force do you need to exert?
- Fulcrum – Where is the best place to put the fulcrum?
- Length of the lever – How long should the lever be?
You can apply the concept of accuracy here too. Depending on the goal and situation you may need to be very accurate or not accurate at all. If your goal is to simply move a rock in your backyard, you might use the trial and error method. However, if you’re a rocket scientist and your goal is to move something on the International Space Station, and you only get one shot, you will have to be very accurate.
Those of you who sail or know about sailing will clearly understand the wind, the water currents, and the direction the captain wants to take the ship are the actionable information to a sailor.
Another great example that everyone can relate to is the gas pedal on your car.
The goal is to control the speed of the car. The actionable information is how fast you want to go. If you want to go faster you push on the gas pedal and the car accelerates. This is a great example because it clearly shows how a machine is designed to focus only on the actionable information. The gas pedal is not interested in how expensive the car is or how you personally feel that day or even where you’re going. The only actionable item to the throttle is do you want to go faster or not.
Here is the key to all these examples. The designers of the machine, the Robot Arm on the International Space Station, the sailboat, or the car, design the machine to only concern itself with the action items that will achieve the goal of the machine.
While I could easily provide hundreds more examples, if you don’t mind I want to provide an example of a machine that bridges the gap between mechanical devices and computerized devices – the simple thermostat. I’ll talk about computerized thermostats when I talk about computers in a few minutes, but let me talk about mechanical thermostats first.
Thermostats have been around a long time and are everywhere, in your house, your car, and your computer. Basically a mechanical thermostat is based on the reality that different metals react to temperature differently. By understanding the physics of this, designers have been able to create a machine that can react to temperature in a way that control other machines.
A thermostat gathers temperature information and based on a pre-defined “program” either turns on or turns off a piece of equipment such as a heater or air conditioner. The objective of the thermostat is to achieve a specific temperature. The Actionable Information is the temperature around the thermostat, and the action is to turn on or off some external temperature controlling device. The accuracy of the thermostat depends on the goal. If the goal is to heat or cool a house it only needs to be fairly accurate. If it is going to control an atomic power plant then much more accuracy is required.
Computer Programs as Examples of Actionable Information
Much of my view of “Actionable Information” actually began years ago when I learned to program computers. What I learned was that computers take in information, manipulate the information to achieve some result, and then output that result in some way. When you write computer programs you have to learn to focus on what is actionable.
Here is simple example of a computer program you would use often, the check out register at the supermarket.
- Action to be made
- Price the product
- Actionable information
- The bar code on the product
In this particular example the action is simply to price the product. The “Code” to support this it would look something like this:
- Scan bar code (Actionable information is the bar code)
- Look up price (The price is not actionable to this goal. See the next example for how to make the price actionable.)
- Display price and print on receipt
However, if you were writing a program to decided to buy the product or not depending on the price then the price becomes actionable. Here is what the code would look like in this scenario:
- Action to be made
- Buy or Not Buy the Product
- Actionable Information
- The Price of the Product
- Scan bar code (Actionable information)
- Look up price (Actionable information)
- If Price is less than $10 skip to step 5 (actionable information is $10)
- If price is more than $10 do not buy product and skip to step 6(actionable information is $10)
- Display price and print on receipt.
- End program
Just for clarity let me go back to the Thermostat example and do the same thing.
Let’s say you have one of the old type thermostats that only look at temperature; then day and time is not actionable. Here is the code for a simple thermostat.
- What is the temperature (actionable information)
- If the temperature is above the set temperature turn on Air Conditioner
Now let’s say you have a new digital thermostat that looks at not only temperature but also day and time. Here is the code for that:
- What is the temperature (actionable information)
- What is the day (actionable information)
- What is the time (actionable information)
- If the temperature is above the set temperature and the day and time are correct then turn on Air Conditioner
Computer programming is a good example of finding actionable information because computers are very literal. They will do whatever they are programmed to do. But it takes a lot of effort to write a program, so programmers have learned to economize on the amount of “code.” They get very focused on only looking at the actionable information for that specific task.
This is a very important section, so let me summarize. To find the information sweet spot it helps to look at what is actionable information in the decision. If you are building a thermostat then temperature is the actionable information. If you are building a gas pedal then the speed you want to go is the actionable information. If you are building a sail boat then the wind is actionable information. Think of it as if you were writing a computer program to make the decision for you. Ask yourself what information would the computer need to make the decision, and that would be the actionable information.
Understanding the Situation
“If you find yourself in a tree, you better figure out why you there before you jump down.” So the saying goes. The better you understand your situation the better you are at getting the best information.
Here again is where honesty is critical. The more honest you are in evaluating your situation the greater the likelihood you will be able to accurately value information.
This is a very short section because I think it is pretty obvious. If I find you need more explanation to understand this section, I’ll add it in later revisions of this book.
Understanding the Difference Between Data, Facts, and Conclusions
To value information appropriately you need to know the difference between data, facts, and conclusions. Not understanding those differences could have significant and disastrous results. So it’s critical we spend some time going over the differences in order to help you develop the skills to get the best information.
Let me ask you to reference back to the discussion I had about “Technical Description of Information” earlier in this section. In that section I pointed out that information is like layers of an onion in that each layer builds on another. Data, Facts, and Conclusions are the same in that “Data” is the core, “Facts” are the layer on top of “Data,” and “Conclusions” are the layer on top of “Facts.”
Let me explain. Data are just bits of information. Facts are bits of information that are true. Conclusions are the practical application of data and facts that help us make decisions.
Here is how I came to this perspective. I work for the telephone company. The telephone company is responsible for one thing and one thing only; geting data from the sender to the receiver exactly as it was sent. We don’t care if that data is true or not. And we don’t care what you do with that data. And we certainly don’t care what conclusions you draw from the data. We only want to make sure that the receiver gets the same thing the sender sent. So if the sender sent a message that said the moon was made of green cheese, we don’t care if it is true or not. And we don’t care what you do with that information. We just want to make sure the receiver heard that the sender said the moon was made of green cheese.
Ensuring that the actual data sent is the exact same data received is so important that the telecommunication industry has developed methods to ensure this happens. One such method is called a “Checksum.” A “checksum” is a feature of a communication network that makes sure the bits of information received were the same bits of information sent. The checksum does not check for the truthfulness of the information. It only checks that what was sent was received. So if you send a “4” the checksum makes sure a “4” was received. A checksum does not check to see if “4” is the right answer or not.
This simple experience has led be to the conclusion:
There is a huge difference between physical pieces of data, the “trueness” of those pieces of data, and the conclusions an individual will draw from those physical pieces of data.
The gas gauge in the car is data. However, it may or may not be accurate. The gas gauge could read full when in fact there is no gas in the tank. Or it could read empty when in fact there is a full tank. The number of miles you’ve driven is also data. But the odometer could be true or not. Or someone could have driven the car without your knowledge or without you knowing how far they drove. Your conclusion about needing to get gas is based on your understanding of the data that you’ve driven a lot of miles and the gas gauge says there is no gas in the tank.
Let’s say a friend tells you the price of gas is going up next week by a dollar a gallon. That is data. It may or may not be true. The conclusion you draw from that data should be dependent on how true it is.
If you look up the word “Data” you get things like, information, statistics, figures, numbers, and records. If you look up the word “Fact” you get truth, reality, actuality and verity. It appears we see data as simply a thing with no assumption whether it’s true or not, whereas we see a fact as something that is true.
This means that we first have data, but to move a thing from data to fact we have to determine that the piece of data is true.
Data is something you can touch, see, or hear. All parties can see, touch, or hear the same data. Once all parties agree that the data exists, they can then move on to review the data and discuss how everyone interprets it.
There are two aspects of data that are important to talk about. First, ALL data is open to interpretation. And second, just because a lot of people believe some piece of data is a fact, does not make it fact. A lot of people can be wrong.
For many years everyone believed the earth was flat. They believed it was a fact that the earth was flat. After all the earth looks flat. And given the perspective of a person, which is infinitesimal compared to the curvature of the earth, for all intents and purposes at any given point it is flat. But just because a lot of people believed the earth was flat, does not make the earth flat.
A great example I like to use is Ignaz Semmelweis. If you’ve never heard of him, just do an Internet Search. You will see he was responsible for getting doctors to wash their hands. There are a number of important messages you can learn from the Semmelweis story.
First you can learn that we have documented cases were very smart people have found it hard to accept change. And, excuse me for being presumptuous but it’s very likely that you may suffer from the same malady. It seems that people prefer to operate from their gut, even when the facts clearly suggest they are wrong.
“It took Ignaz Semmelweis more than twenty years (he died before it happened) to persuade doctors that washing their hands could save the lives of mothers giving birth. He had the data, he had the proof, but that wasn’t enough to change minds.”
One would think the Internet, with its huge reservoir of data, would allow people to not fall into that trap. But on the contrary, it seems to have the opposite effect. It seems people are more likely to believe things that are clearly not true then ever before.
But even if we have the facts we still have a hard time changing. The Mythbuster Show did a story on using a cellphone while driving. They confirmed other research that using a cellphone while driving is as dangerous as driving drunk. I know that is a fact. I believe that is a fact. Yet I continue to use my phone when I’m driving. I suspect you do to. Even though we have the facts, we go with our gut.
I also like to use Galileo as example of this. Galileo proved that a heavy ball will fall at the same rate as a light ball. Yet, to this day many people find that hard to believe. Galileo spent a lot of time dropping balls from the Leaning Tower of Pisa, yet people still had a hard time believing it – because it goes against our gut.
Other Examples of Data, Facts, and Conclusions
I’m 62 years old. That is a fact. But ask a 9 year old and they will tell you I’m old. Ask a 90 year old and they will tell you I’m young. Same fact – different conclusion!
Here is another example. The temperature is 78° I think it’s just right. Annette thinks it’s hot. Same fact – different conclusion!
Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan is credited with saying that: “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts.”
The key here is that as we seek to find what’s actionable, we have to be very careful to distinguish between data, facts, and conclusions. Too often, people will make decisions based on someone’s conclusions rather than the facts.
As I said, I’m 60 years old. That is a fact. But it’s not true. I’m actually 60 years 5 months, 6 days and 5 hours old. And by the way that is no longer a fact because by the time you read this I’m older than when I wrote it. You could say at a particular point in time that was a fact – but not for all points in time. So even though many like to think that a fact is universal and unquestionable, the reality is that all facts are subject to change and interpretation.
Space Shuttle Challenger Explosion
Let’s look at the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986 as an example where confusion between data, facts, and conclusions had catastrophic results.
As you may remember, or can search on the Internet, seventy three seconds after the launch, the Shuttle’s solid rocket boosters exploded when an O-ring failed because of the temperature at launch – killing the entire crew. The point of this is that the Shuttle did not have to launch. The shuttle managers could have delayed the decision to launch until it was safe.
The correct decision would have been to delay the launch until the weather was warmer. However, it was specifically because the launch decision makers confused data, facts, and conclusions that the Shuttle was lost.
The commission appointed to find the cause made this statement:
The consensus of the Commission and participating investigative agencies is that the loss of the Space Shuttle Challenger was caused by a failure in the joint between the two lower segments of the right Solid Rocket Motor. The specific failure was the destruction of the seals that are intended to prevent hot gases from leaking through the joint during the propellant burn of the rocket motor. The evidence assembled by the Commission indicates that no other element of the Space Shuttle system contributed to this failure.
O-ring resiliency is directly related to its temperature.
a. A warm O-ring that has been compressed will return to its original shape much quicker than will a cold O-ring when compression is relieved. Thus, a warm O-ring will follow the opening of the tang-to-clevis gap. A cold O-ring may not.
b. A compressed O-ring at 75 degrees Fahrenheit is five times more responsive in returning to its uncompressed shape than a cold O-ring at 30 degrees Fahrenheit.
c. As a result it is probable that the O-rings in the right solid booster aft field joint were not following the opening of the gap between the tang and cleavis at time of ignition. 
The commission added that the contributing cause was actually the decision to launch:
The decision to launch the Challenger was flawed. Those who made that decision were unaware of the recent history of problems concerning the O-rings and the joint and were unaware of the initial written recommendation of the contractor advising against the launch at temperatures below 53 degrees Fahrenheit and the continuing opposition of the engineers at Thiokol after the management reversed its position. They did not have a clear understanding of Rockwell’s concern that it was not safe to launch because of ice on the pad. If the decision makers had known all of the facts, it is highly unlikely that they would have decided to launch 51-L on January 28, 1986.
The Commission concluded that there was a serious flaw in the decision making process leading up to the launch of flight 51-L. A well structured and managed system emphasizing safety would have flagged the rising doubts about the Solid Rocket Booster joint seal. Had these matters been clearly stated and emphasized in the flight readiness process in terms reflecting the views of most of the Thiokol engineers and at least some of the Marshall engineers, it seems likely that the launch of 51-L might not have occurred when it did. 
You can clearly see why this is a great example of everything I’ve been talking about. While the actual physical cause of the accident was the failure of the o-ring, it was really information, communication, and decision making flaws that resulted in the deaths of the astronauts and the loss of the shuttle and its cargo. To paraphrase the commission in terms I’ve been using throughout this book, had the right information been communicated to the right people, they would never have launched the shuttle.
The decision makers considered the engineers concerns about the o-rings holding in the cold as data, but they did not consider them as facts. They formed the conclusion that it was just engineers being overly cautious.
The Commission said that NASA Managers “did not have a clear understanding of Rockwell’s concern that it was not safe to launch because of ice on the pad. If the decision makers had known all of the facts, it is highly unlikely that they would have decided to launch.”
The interesting part to that finding is that apparently there were hours of debate before the launch between engineers and the NASA managers about the o-rings holding in the cold. The engineers had data that the o-rings might not hold in the cold. The engineers considered that a fact and as a result drew the conclusion that the shuttle not launch. The engineers actually made a recommendation to hold the launch, the first no launch recommendation in the history of the shuttle program.
However, the NASA managers did not draw the same conclusion from the data that the engineers did. The NASA managers had known for some time there were problems with the o-rings so they saw this data from the engineers as nothing new. The NASA managers agreed there was data to suggest that the o-rings were less affective in the cold. They did not however consider that data to be a fact that in the cold the o-rings would fail. Hence, the NASA managers drew the conclusion that it was OK to launch. Clearly they were wrong.
The Commission said that, “If the decision makers had known all of the facts, it is highly unlikely that they would have decided to launch.” Using my approach to decision making, I would say this differently. Using my terminology I would say the decision makers had access to all the data, they just considered different facts and came to a different conclusion than the engineers.
So what facts did the decision makers also consider? Apparently the key facts in the launch decision makers minds were:
- There were two planetary probes aboard the shuttle that had very limited launch window flexibility.
- There were repeated delays already for that shuttle mission.
- The NASA managers wanted to show they could launch shuttles on a regular basis.
Let me briefly summarize this discussion on valuing information into a two basic laws of Information:
- The more actionable the greater the value
- The more you can make information actionable in a particular situation the greater the value.
- The more you can make information actionable in multiple situations the greater the value.
- The more personal the greater the value
I’ve heard it said that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. So too with information! What is information for me may not be information for you. The more personal the information is; the more valuable. You personally decide how much value a particular piece of information has.
Notice I did not say anything about Facts, data, or conclusions. It is possible that a conclusion that is not true could have more value than a conclusion that is true. While usually conclusions based on truth are more valuable, there is no direct correlation between value and truth. Value is truly in the mind of the valuator.
Given that you understand what I’ve been saying up to now, I will start talking about some of the major obstacles to getting good information and how to overcome those obstacles. Again using the analogy of cooking, a cook may know how to cook and what to cook, but they also need to know what can prevent them from achieving their goal. Perhaps fresh ingredients are not available. Or perhaps they don’t have the right tools. So, on that note, let’s get on with it.
Obstacles to Getting Good Information
Let me go on record and acknowledge that I truly understand that while getting good enough information is fairly easy, getting the “BEST” information and/or “better information than your competitors” – is not so easy. You want a better job, but how do you get one? You want to stop smoking, but how do you stop? You want to eat less fat, but how do you know how much fat something has? You want to hire the best employee, but how do you find her. You need to vote, but who to vote for? You want to buy a TV, but which one? You need to invest your money, but where to invest it? You need to get your car fixed, but where should you get it fixed?
Unfortunately, there are a number of environmental and biological obstacles to getting good information. The biological obstacles originate from the reality that our senses are imperfect and our brain can play tricks on us. And the environmental obstacles originate from the reality that the information we need may be unavailable, unreliable, or incomprehensible.
Of the two obstacles, the biological obstacles are the more dangerous and insidious because they’re very subtle, exceptionally hard to detect, often applied unconsciously, and even once identified, are hard to overcome.
It’s important to understand that these biological obstacles are not only in you, but in me, in your friends, family, co-workers, politicians, scientists, everyone. In fact, to a greater or lesser extent we all face the same biological obstacles to getting good information. The reality that we all share pretty much the same obstacles to getting good information is critical to understand. Since we all face the same obstacles, understanding your own obstacles will help you understand the obstacles others around you face. My thinking is that understanding these obstacles will help you develop skills to overcome not only your own obstacles, but might help you help those around you to overcome their own obstacles.
At its heart, this is what drives this book. In my efforts to make better decisions, I’ve had to try to overcome my own environmental and biological obstacles to getting good information. In the process, I’ve learned some skills that have helped me and that I think would help others. It’s those skills that I want to pass on.
And, not only am I writing this to pass on the skills I’ve learned, I’m also writing this in the hope that you might learn some skills that I don’t have and then you can teach those skills back to me. This might sound altruistic, but it is really very selfish. If we can teach each other to be better at getting good information, we will all benefit. As they say, “A rising tide raises all ships.” If my family gets better information, they make better decisions and that benefits me. If my co-workers get better information they make better decisions and that benefits me. If my fellow citizens get better information they make better decisions and that benefits me. Of course I understand that my competitors could also benefit from getting better information, and that could hurt me. But I’m willing to take the risk, and the challenge.
Having said all that let me summarize a bit before I go on. As with pretty much everything, I believe that the more you understand the obstacles in front of you, the better chance you have of either overcoming or avoiding them. What I’m offering here are specific ways to either overcome the information obstacles completely or to at least lessen the obstacle’s negative influences.
I want to be perfectly clear; I’ve not yet found a “magic bullet,” that will instantaneously solve all my information problems. I still make huge decision mistakes. I fall back on the saying that if it were easy everyone would do it. But, while I’m the first to acknowledge that it’s unquestioningly difficult, perhaps impossible to overcome ALL the obstacles, I can tell you that it’s fairly easy to overcome some of the key obstacles to getting the best information and as a result greatly improve your decision making. Think of it like picking fruit. Sure some of the fruit is on top of the tree and hard to get, but there is always “low hanging fruit” that is fairly easy to get. In fact, some fruit is on the ground and all you have to do it pick it up. So too with overcoming information obstacles! While some obstacles may be difficult to overcome, there are many that are easy.
The critical point I’m trying to make is that you can either fold your tent and run away or you can fight to overcome the obstacles. Perhaps the act of fighting, in and of itself, will help you overcome the some of the obstacles. As Shakespeare said in Hamlet, “to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing, end them.”
I’m very anxious to get to the specific skills I think you need to help you get better information. But before I do, I think it would help if I explained, in as much detail as I can, some of the obstacles to gathering good information.
You are of course welcome to simply jump to the skills section. In fact, you may want to go to that section first and then come back to this section latter.
Environmental Obstacles to Getting Good Information
The term “Noise” is actually a communication term and I talked about it in the Communication Chapter. It means any unwanted sound. But in the context I’m using here “noise” means anything that blocks, distorts, changes, or in any way interferes with getting good information.
While I’m going to talk about some specific obstacles to getting good information, an easy thing to do is to simply use the term “noise” as shorthand for anything that prevents you from getting the best information possible. You could simply say that our biological and environmental information processing systems are full of “noise.” By simply accepting that we use “noisy” systems and compensating for it, you can improve your information processing abilities. However, the problem with using the term noise that way is that it is not really actionable. It’s way too high level. We need much more detail.
The better you understand where the noise comes from, the better you will be at building systems to overcome the specific noise that’s preventing you from getting the best information.
The best example I can think of here is Noise Cancelling headphones or “White Noise Systems” in office buildings. Both of these systems reduce unwanted and distracting sounds (and remember our definition of “noise” is any unwanted sound) by figuring out what the unwanted noise is and creating “anti-noise.”  Noise-Cancelling headphones use the physics of sound waves to “cancel” out the bad noise.
The point here is that if your goal is to design Noise Canceling headphones then you need to understand as much as possible about the physics of sound and the biology of hearing. The more you understand these fundamentals the better you will be at achieving your goal.
So applying this Noise Cancelling Headphone example to getting good information , my goal in this Chapter is to present you with ways to reduce the “information noise” we naturally encounter as we try to get good information.
Wouldn’t it be great if you had the best information handed to you every time you needed to make a decision? Wouldn’t it be great if there is a “The Best Information Hot Line” you could call or a “Best Information Web Site” you could go to? Well, sorry to say they don’t exist.
The reality is that to get information at all we usually have to rely on others to get the information for us. Unfortunately, however, there are huge potential obstacles to getting good information from others.
Here is a list of three of the most important obstacles we face when getting information from others:
- The information they provide could be wrong
- The information is not in a form we can use
- The information is too early or too late
The Source of the Information is wrong
As I said before, making a decision is based on knowing the information you are using is correct. However, knowing something is correct is not always easy.
We get information in two ways; we get it ourselves via direct measurement or we get if from someone else. When we get information from someone else we need to be careful because that information could be wrong.
Broadly speaking there are two categories of wrong information coming from someone else:
- The source intended to provide accurate information but did not.
- The source had no intention of providing accurate information; they intentionally lie.
The source of the information has an agenda that runs counter to your agenda When I hear a politician provide information I don’t trust them.
There is little you can do to change this situation. There is nothing you can do if the source is lying intentionally or thinks they are right, but is not. All you can do is try to understand what the motivation of the source is and react accordingly.
Perhaps the best way around this obstacle is to use the Ronald Reagan quote, “Trust, but verify.” If it is important, then you might want to double check.
The Information is not in a form we can Use
There are many decisions I have to make that I just cannot figure out the information. For example, I have to buy a big screen TV. There is plasma, LCD, 3D, and all sorts of other stuff that I just do not understand enough to make a good decision.
It’s not uncommon to get information that we just are not trained to understand. Our auto mechanic tells us about double overhead cams. Our doctor tells us about a sarcoma. Our computer geek tells us about registry errors.
There are two ways around this obstacle. First, you might want to enlist a “translator.” In this case a translator would translate the information that is in a form you cannot use into a form you can use. Or, the second way would be to learn to translate the information yourself. Which one of the two you use would depend on any number of things. For example, is this a onetime event? If it is a onetime event then a translator might be the best solution. However, if it is a recurring event than perhaps you should learn the translate it yourself, so you do not have to rely on a translator every time you get into the situation where the information you need is not in the form you can use.
Personally, I always try to learn it myself first because I love learning. But, I get so busy I often make the decision that learning to translate the information will not be the best use of my limited available time. In that case I simply hire a translator.
Here is the perfect example. Take a look at the x-ray below.
There is information there for sure. But it is in a form I cannot understand. Now, I could go to medical school and learn to read x-rays. Or I could hire a doctor to translate that information for me. Personally I find hiring a doctor is the most effective use of my time.
Now, this is very important. Let’s go back to the point about the source of the information being wrong. There is a great likelihood that the doctor translating this x-ray for me could be wrong. It happens all the time. So, using the “trust, but verify” approach, I might want to get a second opinion. Or I might want to do my own research.
When a decision is critical and I have to rely on the translator, I will often assume that the translator could make a mistake (either intentionally or unintentionally) and so I will check, double check, and triple check the translation. I’ve had situations where the translator is insulted that I would not trust them, but, I tell them I’m sorry, getting the best information is more important than hurting someone’s feelings. And, frankly, I will avoid translators that don’t want me to check their work because if they are any good, they know they are right and are not worried about anyone checking them.
The information is either too early or too late
It’s said, “timing is everything.” So to with information. Getting the information when we need it is critical. There is not much you can do for information that is too late. But we can store information that is too early.
The problem, of course, with storing information for later use is being able to retrieve it when you actually need it. Fortunately, context sensitive databases and digital libraries have greatly improved our ability to retrieve stored information.
I would love to go into a lot more detail on this subject, but I think you get the point and think we should move on.
Biological Obstacles to Getting Good Information
We have some major biological obstacles standing in our way of getting good information. Our senses are limited and, more importantly, our brain plays major tricks on us.
There are three sayings that apply here:
- “I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.”
- Measure twice – cut once
- Trust but Verify
What these sayings tell me is that people have long recognized that we can easily be wrong in our efforts to get information and that a key skill to make sure we are not wrong is to check, verify, confirm, double check, and authenticate everything.
I heard of a guy that was getting a hip replacement. He wrote on his good hip in big letters, “WRONG HIP.” He did this because he heard of cases of doctors making mistakes and replacing the wrong hip on someone.
Here is another example. In 1999 there was a Mars explorer that crashed because one rocket scientist used feet and another rocket scientist used meters. As a result wrong calculations were entered into the guidance system. Rocket scientists often double, triple, quadruple check their calculations when programming a rocket. The risk is just too great. But they still make mistakes.
Clearly mistakes happen. Often times we can just laugh at our mistakes and move on. But sometimes, depending on the situation, an information mistake could have devastating results.
Perception and Selective Perception
We receive huge amounts of information as we move through the world. And as I described earlier, our brain cannot possibly handle all that information effectively. So it combines, filters, and modifies the stimulus it receives into broad generalizations, stereotypes, frames of reference, and assumptions.
We are wired to match our perceptions to patterns we’ve previously established in our brains. Apparently, evolution has come to the conclusion that this is the best way to successfully move through our daily life. Apparently, among our cave dwelling ancestors, the ones that were best able to quickly match current threats and opportunities with previous experiences survived to reproduce better than those that didn’t. Apparently, it is better to think there was a tiger in the bushes and run away when there was no tiger, then to not run away when there was in fact a tiger. In other words, evolution has taught us to err on the side of caution.
But, all that filtering, stereotyping, and generalizing is a huge double edge sword. On one hand it’s great for quickly coming to conclusions. But on the other hand it’s a barrier to evaluating new situations. And, as I talked about earlier, in reality, every situation is a new situation.
I really want to talk about “Selective Perception” but before I talk about “selective” perception, I want to I want to briefly remind you of the discussion on perception we had in the last Chapter on Communication.
Encarta defines perception as, “the process of using the senses to acquire information about the surrounding environment and situation.” Remember when I talked about the senses and how the brain processes information. One of the key points I made was the senses and the brain use an electrochemical process that is subject to all kinds of errors, both intentional – as in when we put still images together to see a movie – and unintentional – as in an optical illusion.
Perception is a two-step process; reception and interruption.
- Step one, the reception step, is pretty straight forward. Our perceptual organs are stimulated by some event – light wave, sound waves, touch, taste, or smell. They then generate an electrochemical signal that is sent to the brain.
- Step two, the interpretation step, is the most intricate step. This is the brain interrupting the signals from our senses and either using those signals right away, as in a reflex movement, or storing them for future use, as you are doing reading this.
Not to sound like a broken record but this is important. Because perception relies on the electrochemical process, it is subject to the variations inherent in our biology and environment. Things like being tired, what you are eating or drinking, or smoking can all influence the specific mix of neurotransmitters. And the mix of neurotransmitters will greatly influence both the reception of stimulus but more importantly the way the brain interrupts the signals sent it.
The result of this is that no two people will perceive in the same way. And it is very likely that you will not perceive in the same way one moment to the next.
Of the two steps, the interpretation step is most likely to get in the way of getting good information. And this is where “Selective Perception” fits in.
If I may, let me reference back to Admiral Stockdale, where he talked about confronting the brutal facts of your current reality. Well, here is the first brutal fact you need to understand; everyone, including you, uses “Selective Perception.” 
We use Selective perception as a survival technique. Without selective perception, we would be completely overwhelmed with stimulus. Selective Perception allows us to filter out information we don’t need. However, selective perception is also quite insidious, because we will ignore things that are incongruent with our existing values and beliefs. This then prevents us from making the best decisions. Selective Perception is an obstacle because it prevents us from seeing reality. We see what we want to see, not what we should see.
We don’t see things as they are; we see things as we want them to be.
It is impossible to pay attention to everything. Our mind has figured out that if it only selects the things that important we will have a better chance of surviving. So in order to make sense of the world we categorize and filter the stimulus that we perceive. Selective Perception describes how we categorize and filter.
Now, I want you to reference back to the discussion I had in Chapter 1 about Drew Weston and his research. Remember that Weston found a biochemical cause for a resistance to change. Remember he used fMRI to study the brains of people making decisions and found that we actually get a chemical “rush” from ignoring information that’s contrary to their point of view. This process is broadly called selective perception, but it is known by other names, my favorite being, “Confirmation Bias.”
I’ll talk more about biases a bit later, but for now, the key difference between Selective Perception and other forms of bias that I want you to pay attention to, is that Selective Perception is unconscious. It happens without you even knowing about it. And, because it’s unconscious it is very difficult to overcome.
There is an old saying in business; “An ounce of image is worth a pound of performance.” This is based on the belief that perceptions are more important than the reality.
Let me offer an example I saw the other night. It was a taste test. Testers were given salads from a fast food restaurant. They were told it was from a fast food restaurant. They judged the salads as poor in quality and high in fat. Then other testers were given the same salad, but told it was from a health food store. They rated the salad high in quality and low in fat.
Another good example of Selective Perception is the game of “telephone” where one person tells a story to another and they then tell it to another and so on. It’s great fun to compare the original story with the one at the end.
There are three main ways we apply Selective Perception:
- Selective attention – Paying attention to specific stimulus
- Selective distortion – Remembering things differently than how they occurred
- Selective Recall – Only remembering the things that confirm our existing beliefs
The key is to remember that we all use Selective Perception; so don’t assume what you see is really what is.
Biased thinking is a bit different from selective perception. The concept of selective perception is it happens unconsciously, whereas the concept of biased thinking is it happens consciously.
The point here is that while it’s extremely hard, if not impossible, to prevent yourself from selective perception – you do it, I do it, everyone does it – it’s much easier to prevent yourself from biased thinking.
There are many types of bias thinking that I could go over. However, of all of them Confirmation Bias is the worst.
“Confirmation Bias” refers to the situation where you focus on “confirming” bits of information and filter-out “non-confirming” information.
Here are some examples of others views on this. I think these confirm my point, but I could be using conformation bias, so you be the judge.
Let’s say you think BMW is the best car ever made, you would tend to see only the reports that say BMW is the best care ever made. And if you saw a report that said Lexus was the best car ever made, you would either ignore it or find reasons to discredit it.
If our beliefs are based on verifiable facts and valid experiments, like the fact that water is made up of 2 parts of Hydrogen and one part water (H2O) and this is proven by an electrolis experiment, then the tendency to pay more attention to data that fits that model will not lead us too far off course. However, you need to understand that even this might be a risk. Many commonly held beliefs, based on the best information of the time, were in fact wrong. Beliefs like the earth is flat or horses always have at least one foot on the ground when they run were widely held beliefs until new information proved them wrong.
The point is that you need to make sure you understand that there is a bright line between reasonableness and closed mindedness.
But don’t just take my word for this. There have been numerous studies to confirm this. What I’m saying is that it’s a biological fact that we all tend to give more attention and credence to information that supports our beliefs. We all do it. We all do it all the time. You do it. I do it. Everyone does it. In essence we are “addicted” to our own beliefs in the same way a heroin addict is addicted to heroin.
Confirmation Bias is not the only form of biases we use. Here is a short list I found of some other biases.
- Anchoring – Giving disproportionate weight to the first information you receive.
- Status quo – Favoring alternatives that perpetuate the existing situation
- Sunk Costs – Making choices in a way that justifies past, flawed choices
- Confirming evidence – Seeking information that supports your existing point of view
- Framing – Structuring the situation in ways that favor one solution over another
- Estimating and forecasting – Being overly influenced by vivid memories when estimating
- Overconfidence – Not being honest about our abilities
- Over Cautiousness – Too much prudence or too much fear of failure
- Recallability – The risk of being influenced by what is top of mind or what is easily recalled.
What is actionable here is that you need to understand that in order to get good information you need to overcome the obstacle of only looking at information that confirms your existing beliefs, because your existing beliefs can be wrong.
Skills Required to Overcome the Obstacles to Getting Good Information
What I present here is intended to be simply an overview of some of the key skills required. I am preparing another book with more in-depth explanations and exercises that will help you hone these skills.
Skill #1 – Measure Twice – Cut Once. Check, verify, recheck, confirm.
There is an old saying in carpentry; Measure twice – Cut once. When making any decision your first step is to gather information. But, gathering information is only half the battle. The other half is to gather useful and accurate information.
When you’re in bed in the morning and your decision to get up is in front of you, your first step is to gather information. You need to look at a clock and see what time it is. You need to think about what you have to do for the day. When deciding what to wear you need to gather information like what you plan to do today & what you have that’s clean.
Often times gathering information is very easy. If Iwanted to go to a movie I would either, drive by the theater to see the times, check the Internet, or look in the paper. Let’s say I wanted to know how much money I had to spend on food. I’d probably look in my check book, or go online to check my bank account, or I’d just know how much you have because I just balanced my checkbook.
Let’s say I want to decide what to order at a restaurant. Gathering information is easy, I’d simply look at the menu. Menus are designed to provide all the information I might need to choose something. But, perhaps I still have some question so I’d ask the waiter. I might want to know if the fish is fresh or if I could substitute the sweet potato for the baked potato. In all those cases, gathering information was easy.
Unfortunately, there are many times when gathering the best information is not easy. And, also unfortunately, though fairly understandably, often, the times that gathering the best information is not easy are also the times you need it the most. Let’s say you hear a rattle in the car. You need to know what’s causing the rattle, how much will it cost to fix, and where’s the best place to get it fixed. All those questions are hard to answer. You might not know what the rattle is. And even if you did, you need to find a mechanic you can trust.
There are two broad ways to you gather information; you personally gather all of it yourself or someone else gathers some of it and gives it to you. Clearly you have much more control over the information you personally gather. But in our complex world you will rarely find a situation where you can gather all the information you need to make a decision. In today’s world we almost always rely on others to provide some, if not all, the information we need.
There is some information we get from others that we take for granted is accurate, like the time a plane, train, or bus is scheduled to leave and arrive. Or the ingredients in a product. Or a price of a stock listed in the paper. That’s not to say that any of these things are always right and are never wrong. It’s up to you to determine what is the consequence of them being wrong. If the consequence is significant, then it is imperative that you get second and third opinions.
Again, “trust but verify.”
But this is not to say that just because someone else gathers it, it’s better or worse than if you gather it. In fact, sometimes you can get better information from someone else than you could get yourself. The doctor is a great example. I can take my own blood pressure, but is it probably better when the doctor gathers that information.
In the section on learning I said honesty was critical, well, honesty is critical here too. Honestly evaluating your own skill at gathering information yourself is essential to getting the best information. You need to know when it’s best to gather information yourself and when it’s best to have someone help.
Let me use some examples;
- Example 1 – Medical information. In order to stay healthy we need to gather medical information. When you go to the Doctor she wants to know our blood pressure, temperature, blood chemistry and much more stuff doctors want to know.
- Example 2 – Fixing a rattle in your car. Cars are very completed and require expertise to know what a rattle is and how to fix it.
I see a difference between basic skills, like reading and listening and advanced skills like computer programming and reading an x-ray. Everyone should know how to read and listen. But how well you can read and listen sets apart those that are just good at information gathering and those that are the best at it.
Skill #2 – Apply the learning steps
I described these steps in Chapter 1. (You’ll see that I use this method to do a lot of things because I find that it works well for me.)
Much like a painter draws a rough outline of what they want to paint first then they go back and fill in the detail. This list is just the first step to getting good information. This is just a rough outline of what you need to do. In order to make these steps more actionable, you need to provide a lot more detail.
Skills #3 – Apply A Structured Approach to Information
Let me go back to the assembly line analogy I used earlier. If you remember I said that in decision making, the end product is the decision, the individual parts are the pieces of information, and the conveyer belt is communication. And I said the goal is to get the best information to the right people at the right time. Now I want to put it all together and talk about the skills you need to get the best information to the right people at the right time. I also want to talk the obstacles that might be in your way and how to overcome those obstacles.
Let’s start with listing the 4 important skills you need to pay attention to in order to get the best information:
- Information Gathering
- Information Storage and Retrieval
- Information transmission – Communication
- Information Analysis – Putting everything together to come up with what’s actionable
I draw a direct correlation to the assembly line in the following chart.
If you are reading this for yourself you have to do all four yourself. If you are in an organization these skills would usually be performed by different groups. For example, Information Gathering might be done by a Market Research group or a finance group. Obviously, Information Storage and Retrieval would be done by the Information Technology department. And Information Transmission would be the responsibility of the Telecommunications Network folks.
Whether you are reading this to apply to your own personal life or you plan to apply this to your organization, the skills would be the same. So, I want to spend some time on each skill, describe what it is, and offer some tools to overcome some of the common obstacles.
Skill at gathering information is the first skill you need to master. The better you are at gathering information the better your decision making will be. We gather information from 2 main sources; direct observation and stored data.
- Information Gathering Skill #1 – Seeing
- We gather a great deal of information from our eyes alone. If we have problems seeing then we do things to help like wear glasses or use magnifying lenses
- Information Gathering Skill #2 – Reading
- Does this seem to be too simplistic? I’m sorry. But it is a basic skill. However, I assume that since you’re reading this you can read.
- Information Gathering Skill #3 – Listening
- Listening is a basic skill that many do not do very well. Often times people listen for the singular purpose of figuring out a way to prove the other person wrong. This is not the right skill for gathering good information. The right skill is to listen to determine if the information being considered is actionable.
- Information Gathering Skill #4 – Math
- Does this also seem to be too simplistic? I’m sorry. But it is a basic Skill. You need to balance your check book and you need to add how much your meal will cost.
- Information Gathering Skill #5 –Library/Internet Search
- Being able to use a card catalog system or search the Internet for Information is a critical skill. I suggest that it be taught in grade school.
- Information Gathering Skill #5 – Media Literacy
- We get all kinds of information from the Media. But being able to get the maximum information from the Media is a critical skill. There is an organization, National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) that does a great job of putting together programs to teach media literacy.
- Information Gathering Skill #6 – Telecommunications (email, SMS, Phone, Video/Web conferencing)
- Use of basic telecommunications systems is fundamental for gathering information. Most people are pretty good at this. However, there may be some of you out there that could use some training on how to maximize these tools.
- Information Gathering Skill #7 – Understanding the way humans process information
- I’ve spent a lot of time on this skill throughout the book so far. This is not a necessary skill. However, if you want to move up to the next level it is important.
Information Storage and Retrieval
Gathering information is an ongoing process. Often times we gather information that we will need to use sometime in the future. So we need a way to store the information we gather until we need it. Then we need a way to retrieve the information we’ve stored when we need it.
This is where computers have really helped our decision making ability.
If you don’t mind, let me go back to my analogy of the assembly line as a decision process. In terms of information storage and retrieval think of storing the parts until they’re needed. In the past this was accomplished with huge warehouses adjacent to the assembly line. Recently, a concept of “just in time inventory” was developed to improve the parts storage process. With “just in time inventory” the parts are stored off site from the assembly line and delivered to the appropriate place on the assembly line at “just the right time” it’s needed. The benefit’s that the assembly line can reduce inventory storage space and increase assembly line production space. So to with information, having just in time information is very useful.
This skill includes being able to use a database and being able to back up information.
Once you’ve gathered the information you need to get it to the right people at the right time. I’ll direct you back to Chapter 3 for the skills to ensure that the right information gets to the right people.
It’s not only the ingredients in the cake that make the cake delicious; it’s how the ingredients are combined. So too with information! It’s not just the pieces of information that determine the value of information; it’s how those pieces are combined.
Let me give you an example. Annette and I are driving to Florida from Atlanta. I notice the gas gauge is indicating that we are low on gas – that is the information gathering function. I know the car we are driving and I figure that we can go another 50 miles before we get gas, I also know that there is a gas station coming up, and I know that Annette wants to stop soon – that is the information analysis function. So I say to Annette, “we are going to need gas soon, where do you want to stop. Annette then says she wants to stop at the next station – that is the decision making function. I did the information gathering and analysis. Annette did the decision making.
It works the same way in business. I would often see a problem that required a decision. I would gather the relevant information, I would prepare a analysis along with a recommended solution, I would present that analysis to my boss, and my boss would make the decision.
In addition to all the biological obstacles to gathering good information, there are physical obstacles that have to be overcome too.
Skill #4 – Understand the Situation
If you want to find the Information Sweet Spot, you need to understand the specific situation you find yourself.
If the goal is to get gas and donuts, then you need to understand about getting gas and donuts. If the goal is to make a sale, then you need to know who is buying, what they want, what you have to sell. If the goal is to do your spring planting then you need to know the weather, how to plant, what plants you need, and what fertilizer you need. Understanding about the calories of donuts may be good information to know, but it will not help you determine when the best time to plant your lawn is.
The more you understand the situation the more likely you can find the Information Sweet Spot.
If the decision is technical, like what kind of computer to buy, then you need technical information. If the decision is financial, like where to invest your money, then you need financial information. If the decision is medical, like how do you lose weight, then you need medical information.
Depending on the situation you may gather all the information yourself or you may rely on experts to help you. In business we call them Subject Matter Experts (SMEs). Your doctor and dentist are SMEs. Your Tax accountant is a SME. Your auto mechanic is a SME.
Let me share with you a story that my kids love to tell that make help illuminate this topic. One day my whole family was headed to the Airport for a vacation. It was raining heavily and some of the roads were flooded. At an interchange, I decided to go a different way than normal. This resulted in a huge fight between Annette and me. After awhile, Jillian said, she figured out why were fighting. Jillian astutely observed, “Mom likes a lot of information, and Dad provides only a little information.” In thinking about it, I knew instantly that Jillian was right. So here is how this story relates to this section of understanding the situation. Whenever I deal with Annette I have to remember that she likes a lot of information. For Annette the Information Sweet Spot is greater than for me.
Unfortunately there is a risk is using only experience to understand the situation. I talked about this risk earlier when I talked about our resistance to change and how “ruts” in our thinking can prevent us from finding new solutions. And I’ll talk about this later when I talk about how we try to find information that conforms to our experience. The point is you need to be careful in trying to understand the situation that you view the situation as it is, not as we would like it to be.
Skill #5 –Managing the Differences between; Data, Facts, and Conclusions
As I talked about earlier there is a huge difference between data, facts, and conclusions. As a skill, those that are better at understanding and focusing on the differences can get better information. You need to learn to evaluate the information you are gathering an know which bucket it falls into.