Having started a blog with good intentions, I went down the route of many others, made a couple of posts and then allowed myself to be distracted by a thousand other issues – the theme of this post. However it is now my intention to post on a more regular basis, starting with an observation about the reporting of a recent news event which has caused me to reflect on the Mission Excellence strapline: ‘cutting through the noise.’
The Reporting of Malaysia Airlines MH370
I seem to have some level of profile as a result of my speaking activities (not least self-generated through marketing), and I am quite often called my media agencies to comment on military aviation stories. Being ‘on the books’, I was called recently by a global brand name news organisation to ask my opinion on what might have happened to MH370. This was before the search was narrowed to the Indian Ocean. My main comment was that some of the reporting about potential scenarios had been surprisingly uninformed but had improved over time as background information was better researched. However I declined to offer any opinion on the record since it would have been pure speculation and I had no desire to lend my voice to the increasing volume of uninformed hypotheses. It quickly became clear that the journalist wasn’t overly concerned about the conviction of any opinion though; he simply wanted a supposed ‘expert’ to go on the record to pad out his story. On reflection, I realised that the problem he faced was that there was huge public interest, nothing tangible to report, and a 24-hour news cycle to be filled. So an organisation renowned for the quality of its journalism was applying a remarkably low bar to the quality of its reporting; any comment was better than none.
Sorting the Wheat from the Chaff
Technology, the internet, and in particular mobile communications, mean that the amount of information available on almost any subject is now virtually unlimited. However simultaneously, the filtering of information by quality and verification of its truth and source has gone in the opposite direction; there is almost none. As mobile communications themselves become more sophisticated, this may improve, however the general direction of travel is irreversible – everyone has the ability to contribute on everything. We have vast amounts of easily accessed unchecked information available, a situation which causes as many problems as it solves, as well as providing constant distraction and competition for our ever-shorter attention span. We are nearly all guilty of contributing to this information overload; the ability (and tendency) to copy everybody in on every email means that our inboxes are so full that it almost impossible to focus on what is actually important. Combined with the tendency to leave email ‘on’ at all times, distraction is a certainty, not a possibility. Maintaining focus on priorities is very challenging.
It was recently suggested to me that a good time management and attention-focusing technique is to allocate short periods (say 25 minutes) to activities during which time no interruptions are allowed. If anything does distract you or other things occur to you, simply note them down for later review and continue with the task. I pretty much dismissed this as some time management fad for people who simply need to get a bit organised and focused. However, finding myself somewhat less focused than I would like to be, I gave it a go, and it might be a simple gimmick, but it definitely helped.
As we scale up, the problem multiplies exponentially in large organisations. Many devote significant resources to strategy development, spend a fortune on communications and management training, and yet few if any people within those organisations know exactly why they do what they do, or even what they really should be doing in order to achieve the higher level intent. Communication tends to be either inadequate or totally over the top and it is impossible to sort the wheat from the chaff.
My experience is that the more complex your operating environment is, the simpler the priorities need to be. Some years ago, I interviewed Stuart Rose, former Chief Executive and then Chairman of M&S, and was impressed by his ability to articulate the corporate priorities in 2 or 3 sentences. In my own previous life as a fighter pilot, the operating environment tended to be both dynamic and ambiguous, with either too much or too little information. Decisions often required prompt action, rendering intellectually rigorous analysis of a situation impossible. There was a huge reliance on clear, simple unambiguous priorities, both in operating the aircraft and in delivering the mission outcome. The best decision you were ever going to make was ‘about right, now’ (credit to Stephen Bungay for the words).
A senior manager in a global pharmaceutical company recently identified email management to me as a critical success factor for senior managers, choosing that over leadership, intellect and delivery ability. Even allowing for a little artistic licence, this is an interesting sign of the times. In a world of information overload, often of unproven or poor quality and relevance, the ability to maintain focus has never been more important. In my opinion, the key is clear simple priorities (and not a little self-discipline…).