Too much information can be counter-productive

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This editorial was originally published on Aug 26, 2015. It is being re-run as Steve is traveling.

I find it ironic that presenting less information results in more effective decisions.

I had a colleague who was tasked with managing a multi-version upgrade and migration of a physical database cluster supporting multiple 24/7/365 systems to a new virtual environment.  He and his team set about planning this with their customary thoroughness and skill.  Their plan was meticulous and detailed and so when they submitted it to the Change Management Board they were somewhat shocked when their plan was rejected.

Taking the feedback from the board to heart my colleague examined each point in turn and proceeded to supply finer grained detail and also periphery information that he felt was pertinent.  At the next Change Management Board it was again rejected and further questions were raised. Again, he answered all these questions and broadened out his plan to include an analysis of the upstream and downstream systems, the client applications that would consume the system, the variations in operating system patch levels, SAN performance considerations.  In short everything he could possibly think of that might, no matter how improbably, affect the process.  Again it was rejected.

His mistake, as he explained to me later, was that board equated the amount of detail with the amount of risk.  The level of detail in his first submission made the task appear high risk and frightening to the Change Management Board. Any additional detail provided from that point simply compounded the problem.

The lesson is to target your message to your audience.

Perhaps you have heard the mantra “3 bullet points of 5 words each or 5 bullet points of 3 words each”?  Or perhaps more darkly “Presenting to management?  Few words with few syllables”. Both mantras are intended to draw focus on the effectiveness of the message, not on the IQ of those in management positions. One of my managers expressed it thus:

“My coverage of subjects at this level is broad rather than deep, I wish I had the time for depth but I don’t.  I expect my staff to know the detail.  That is their job and they must earn my trust that their competence is a fact”.

With this as a guiding principle he forbade us from entering any item on a risk register for which we had not proposed a solution.  We were the subject matter experts with the knowledge to solve the problem.  His role was to keep us on our toes, play devil’s advocate and judge which solution best fitted the overall plan for the organisation.

He was also clear that we should propose a maximum of three solutions and in order with our 1st choice at the top.  Any more than three solutions would be more likely to add delay than value to the decision making process.

Focussing on the three facts most relevant to your target audience is a discipline that will add strength to your position.  It is not an easy discipline to adhere to when you are brimming over with passion for your subject.  As we ask our audience to focus on more and more and we risk diluting our most important message and losing the impact we wish to create.

As a wealthy consultant put it to me “the point when my career really took off was when I learned how to talk to management”.

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