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 #6 –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.
 It’s possible that this has always been the case. Even in cave man times, those that did not excel were left with the scraps.
 I understand that this is one of those “easier said than done statements.” I hate those, I bet you do too. So, please be patient. I will spend a lot of time describing specific things you can do to get better information than your competitors. I just need to build up to it. I need to lay the foundation for the things I recommend.
 This view of things being a journey can be seen throughout everything I’ve written so far. But there are clear references to this view in Chapter 1 where I discussed the Learning Process and in Chapter 2 where I discussed Setting Goals.
 There is a great quote from Donald Rumsfeld, “There are known knowns. There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say We know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”—Feb. 12, 2002, Department of Defense news briefing
 If anyone reading this has suggestions for other tools please offer them to me and I will add it to the list.
 Because I question everything, I cannot get mad at people that question what I have to say. And it is likely that those that don’t question information they get, would get mad at people that question them.
 I’ll get into more detail later about this in terms of information influencing behavior. And in this case I probably could work in the rain, but I’ll use any excuse not to work on the weekends.
 Shannon-Weaver wrote a classic book called, “The Mathematical Theory of Communication.” This is the classic foundation for much of our current understanding of information.
 This comes from the work of Berger &Calabrese in the mid 70’s on “Uncertainty Reduction Theory.” “information is defined as the reduction of uncertainty” as quoted from Wickens & Hollands (2000). But who are they quoting? Our hero, Claude Shannon, with Weaver from ‘The Mathematical theory of communications’
 I agreed with him not only because I wanted to get my degree and he was the last thing standing in my way, which I’m sure was a part of it. But, I agreed with him because I actually thought that was a good way to look at information.
 By right person I mean someone with the skills to do the job.
 “Logistics means having the right thing, at the right place, at the right time.” http://www.logisticsworld.com/logistics.htm
 Annette and I are often amazed when we watch a cooking show how much butter, fat, and oil they use. No wonder everything tastes so good when you go out to eat. If you know how much fat was in what you ordered I wonder if we would eat out as much.
 Clearly there are other morals to take from the story
 Notice I said amount and type of information. This equates to the quantity and the quality of the information.
 It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it ws the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness; it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity; it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness; it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair; we had everything before us, we had nothing before us; we were all going directly to Heaven, we were all going the other way.” – Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
 Open Systems Interconnection Model
 I’m not a physicist so I don’t know if this is exactly accurate. Hopefully you get my point.
 There is a difference between a communications network and a telecommunications network. A communications network can be between people. A telecommunications network is always between machines. I explain why that’s important in the Chapter on Communication – Chapter 4.
 Longfellow “Paul Revere’s Ride.”
 You will notice that they are squares of 2. Because a bit can have 2 states, on or off
 See how I worked beets back into the story.
 Shannon-Weaver page 43
 Style is an important factor on valuing a car as well as features.
 Of course this is absent a crash.
 There were any number of people selling their suggestions on what horses to bet on.
 Under full disclosure Annette, Jillian and I all went to the Annenberg School of Communication. And the TV Guide was one of the sources of Annenberg’s fortune.
 Oh, if only they could figure out how to make great low calorie donuts, the world would be a better place.
 Notice I said “pieces” of information. You will see later that information comes in discrete pieces.
 I’ve not done any research but I would think that the information needed expands logarithmically as the goals expand because of the permutations involved.
 Information can have negative value. Refer back to the discussion on the Learning Continuum.
 A great example of this is the movie Glengarry Glen Ross, where the sales team fights for the good sales leads because they old leads are not actionable.
 This actually goes back to the salad bar example. What is actionable depends of my particular situation at a specific time. And it also goes to how you organize information so that you can store it for later use. I use 2 criteria to store information: 1) might I need this information later, and 2) if I need it can I get to it so I can use it.
 Of course has our results been dismal it might have been actionable.
 Give me a place to stand and with a lever I will move the whole world.” Archimedes
 By the way, the gas pedel is just a lever.
 Pascal’s Computer is a great example to use here.
 Code is the Slang term for computer program.
 Page 158
 This goes back to my discussion in Chapter 1 about change being hard.
 His idea was ignored and he died in an asylum at 47. Only after his death and the advent of germ theory did this practice become accepted as reducing mortality.
 Jeime and
 I could go into the Heisenberg uncertainty principle at this point, which states that “Roughly speaking, the uncertainty principle (for position and momentum) states that one cannot assign exact simultaneous values to the position and momentum of a physical system. Rather, these quantities can only be determined with some characteristic ‘uncertainties’ that cannot become arbitrarily small simultaneously.” http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/qt-uncertainty/. But I think that would only appeal to the biggest nerds among us.
 Report of the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident (In compliance with Executive Order 12546 of February 3, 1986)
 Report of the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident (In compliance with Executive Order 12546 of February 3, 1986). Commission Report Chapter 5
 The Commission noted that there was originally a plan for a shuttle launch every week. But, the reality of how difficult it was to safely launch a shuttle forced “several downward revisions” of that schedule. In 1985 NASA published a projection calling for 24 flights a year. But again it was clear that even 2 launches a month would never happen. The Commission concluded the pressures to launch were significant to prove the shuttle program viable.
 In essence I want to build a “learning community” where everyone in the community teaches everyone else how to get the best information.
 Again HONESTY is critical here. You have to figure out what the obstacles are and not being honest with yourself will make that harder.
 Whenever I read this I keep thinking of the Shakespeare soliloquy, “to be or not to be, that is the question Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, And by opposing end them.” Rather than suffer the consequences of information obstacles, by fighting them we can overcome them.
 There’s a great line in the movie “League of Their Own” where Tom Hanks says, “It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard… is what makes it great.”
 Of course that is easier said than done. Which is why I go into detail about the obstacles.
 The concept of “antinoise” is a perfect example of how understanding the natural laws of something is important to working with it. By understanding the physical properties of sound, specifically sound waves and the way the ear and mind work, sound engineers are able to come up with antinoise machines.
 Sound waves have unique properties that allow for noise cancelling systems.
 Remember in Chapter 1 on Learning I talked about how important it was to learn the natural laws of things. This is a perfect example.
 Robert McCloskey an American author and illustrator of children’s books.
 Ronald Reagan frequently used it when discussing U.S. relations with the Soviet Union. Reagan rightly presented it as a translation of the Russian proverb “doveryai, no proveryai” (Russian: Доверяй, но проверяй). Soviet revolutionary Vladmir Lenin also frequently used the phrase. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trust,_but_verify
 I’ll talk more about this skill in the Skill Section of this Chapter
 Here are the actual findings in case you’re interested. “The peer review preliminary findings indicate that one team used English units (e.g., inches, feet and pounds) while the other used metric units for a key spacecraft operation. This information was critical to the maneuvers required to place the spacecraft in the proper Mars orbit. “”Our inability to recognize and correct this simple error has had major implications,” said Dr. Edward Stone, director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.” http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msp98/news/mco990930.html
 This was true for cave men as it’s today. Many people argue that we receive more information today, which is possible, but????
 Pattern Recognition theory’s.
 Remember that because it is an electrochemical process there can be all kinds of problems with just sending the signals from the sense organs to the brain.
 This goes back to my point in the Preface about not building the same exact salad twice.
 The reception part of perception is usually not a problem because the errors tend to be easily understood and correctable with things like glasses, Lasik surgery, hearing aids, & cochlear implants.
 I don’t have a good source for this. I remember studying it in college. I’m not even sure it needs a source. But if you have one I’ll be happy to include it. Just Google or Bing Selective Perception and you’ll see a lot of stuff.
 The “most likely reason for the excessive influence of confirmatory information is that it’s easier to deal with cognitively” (Gilovich 1993).
 Go back to my discussion of Drew Weston
 HBR The Hidden Traps in Decision Making, John S. Hammond, Ralph L. Keeney, and Howard Raiffa)
 This is where Annette and I would differ. Notice I only needed 2 pieces of information. Annette would also want to know what looks good, what have she worn recently that someone might have seen her in, what goes together, and so on. This actually gets to back to the salad bar analogy. When picking out clothes to were everyone is going to use different information.
 Here is a good time to apply the campers and the bear story. You don’t have to be great, you just have to be better at gathering information than you competitors. Let me give a quick example. Annette, Jillian, and I were boarding a plane from Paris to Atlanta. There was a long line to check in. We were at the end. I went to the desk clerk and asked if that was the correct line. She said no, there was a much shorter line on the other side. Apparently I was the only one to ask, and we got on board and go prime overhead storage ahead of everyone else. In this case, overhead storage was the bear and all the other passengers were the other camper. I just needed better information than them.
 I had a boss that would often say, don’t bring me problems. Bring me solutions. I hated this. I thought it was short sighted. First, what if I didn’t know the solution. But more often what would happen is I would bring a solution, but the boss didn’t like the solution.
 I’ll go into a lot more detail about this when I talk about different kinds of “biases.”