How to stop information overload crippling your business

Some potential solutions to a very modern problem: how senior execs can withstand the data deluge and keep a clear head...

by James Taylor
Last Updated: 19 Aug 2013
There's a lot to be said for always-on connectivity; it allows managers to keep one hand permanently on the tiller, wherever they are. But it also has some fairly significant drawbacks. As a new report by strategy consultancy McKinsey suggests, senior execs desperately need uninterrupted time to synthesise all the information they receive, think creatively, and make good decisions. But in an era when most people own smartphones and even aeroplanes now have wi-fi, it's never been more difficult for them to get some clear head-space. The answer? To focus, filter and forget, apparently...

The one thing you definitely shouldn't do, McKinsey reckons, is to rely on multitasking as a coping mechanism. That's partly because it's inefficient: some studies suggest tasks take up to 30% longer this way, and mistakes are more common. 'Our brains can’t successfully tell us to perform two actions concurrently,' McKinsey explains. It makes people less creative, because it's harder for them to make fresh connections between different thoughts. It's stressful: in a recent Reuters poll, two-thirds of respondents said multitasking had lessened their job satisfaction and affected personal relationships, while one-third said it had actually damaged their health. And it's also addictive: some Harvard psychologists have even suggested that for some people, being connected provides a kind of 'dopamine squirt'.

The best solution, McKinsey reckons, is not dissimilar to that suggested by management guru Peter Ducker 40 years ago; they describe it as 'focus, filter and forget'. Focus means picking the most deserving topics and spending time on then, if needs be by creating 'alone time' and/ or turning off your email/ phone/ browser. Filtering means working out what you need to see, and what you can delegate. And forgetting means giving your brain more downtime - through exercise, or fresh air, or even just talking to other people (you know, like we used to do before email was invented).

Of course, adopting these strategies takes a lot of discipline - and not just on an individual level. The McKinsey paper argues that leaders actually need to think about redesigning 'working norms' throughout the company: they need not only to set an example but also talk about their approach, and look at ways to support these norms throughout the organisation. This might turn out to be an IT question.

These days it seems like technological process is all about finding new ways to put more and more information at our fingertips to facilitate decision-making. But we should never forget that we can end up with too much information, and not enough time to think about it – which makes decisions harder, not easier...

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