There's one thing the world today has no shortage of: Information. Just about everyone these days suffers from T.M.I. (Too Much Information). The ubiquity of social media and the smartphone has created a 24/7 flood of information overload. And while we need information to make sense of the world and to make good decisions, more often than not we're overwhelmed by the sheer volume rushing at us.
It's like trying to drink from a fire hose. And, the question isn't how to shut off the valve—because that simply isn't going to happen—but how to make meaning out of it all? How do you find the truly essential nuggets of information and use them with confidence?
Those are the key questions at the heart of a new book by Christopher Frank and Paul Magnone called Drinking From The Fire Hose: Making Smarter Decisions Without Drowning in Information. Christopher Frank is the vice president of business-to-business and communications research at American Express, and Paul Magnone is the director of global business development and alliances at Openet.
With Google+ entering the social media mix, adding yet another stream of always-on information and bringing with it a whole new set of decisions for both individuals and businesses, the timing couldn't be better for Drinking From the Fire Hose.
The explosion of data has the potential to impair decision making and cripple judgement, and the solution is deceptively simple: Learn how to ask the right questions at the right time. Whatever field you're in, asking smarter questions will expose you to new information, point you to connections between seemingly unrelated facts, and open new avenues of discussion and dialog.
The authors demonstrate how to transform data into information, and information into knowledge and insight, by asking and answering seven key "Fire Hose" questions:
- What is the essential business question? Identify the one vital piece of information you need to move forward, and determine whether what you're looking at exposes or conceals that vital information.
- Where is your customer's North Star? Uncover your customer's needs and wants in your existing data. Make sure that data amplifies rather than muffle's the customer's voice. "Put the customer's voice front and center in any presentation," write the authors.
- Should you believe the squiggly line? Step away from the data—don't use short-term data to make long-range plans. "We call this over-reliance on short-term data the Squiggly Line syndrome," write the authors. "If you make the time frame small enough, the data almost always appears as a squiggly line...the numbers are almost always less volatile over the long term."
- What surprised you? Take a hard look at the numbers on the page, not the number you expected to see. Use your intuition to spot mistakes and your natural skepticism to look for surprises. Don't dismiss every number you can't explain as an outlier.
- What does the lighthouse reveal? Define the criteria that are meaningful to your business, identify the "Lighthouse" data—the critical information that will keep your business out of danger—and create beacons. Develop a strategy that is defensible and can scale based on Lighthouse examples.
- Who are your swing voters? Swing voters, or swing customers, offer the greatest opportunity for growth with the smallest expense. To find them, categorize your customers as favorable, neutral, or unfavorable. Define your neutral customers as a leaner, neutral, or defector. Profile each segment, and target each with a dedicated message. Continually reassess those categories and segments.
- What? So What? Now What? The "what?" is the data; the "so what?" is a discussion of what that data means, and the "now what?" drives the discussion on what you should really do about it. So: find the data that matters, ask yourself what it really means, and take action based on that meaning.
The authors not only provide straight-line, practical, useful advice, they provide compelling examples and untold stories drawn from their experiences with numerous start-ups as well as iconic brands like American Express, Microsoft and IBM. They also include recent events outside the business world. The authors' unpacking of the Iceland volcanic ash cloud incident of 2010 that grounded planes and stranded travelers will astound you when you realize how exorbitantly expensive decisions were made in the absence of relevant and meaningful data.
Too, the organization of Drinking From The Fire Hose makes extracting the key takeaways a breeze, as the authors do it for you at the start and end of every chapter. I attribute this to the authors' statement that they are "businesspeople first and authors second." In other words, they practice what they preach—the "What? So What? Now What?" is abundantly clear, accessible, and actionable.
Anyone struggling to get a handle on the flood of information (and who isn't) will appreciate this seven-dimension heuristic for enabling better fact-based decision making.
What people are saying
"Frank and Magnone have created an insightful and groundbreaking model that will likely be built upon for years to come. As data continues to grow exponentially—useful information remains elusive. The framework presented herein presents a methodology that is critical for separating the knowledge from the noise and then shows how to apply it within our processes to make more effective business decisions." —John Rizzuto, Research VP, Gartner