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Information to burn

I recently posted a short blog where I was suggesting that to thrive in difficult times, everyone in a business should think like a founder. I expressed this idea as if I was considering a new hire, and the qualities I’d be looking for in them. To my surprise, I was flooded with responses from people thanking me for the job! My team was then engaged for a day writing back to assure the correspondents that as and when I have a place in my company, I advertise it through the correct channels, with a proper job description, the qualities I’m looking for in an employee, and the geographic location. The blog was a piece of figurative writing.
I’m sorry if it briefly raised the hopes of people looking for new work, especially in the current economic climate, but it did set me thinking about how shallowly messages are read. And when they are read, how people feel the need to instantly respond. To think about, and weigh-up situations is no longer fashionable, and if we don’t make decisions within seconds, then we might get left behind in the race.
I disagree.

When we are searching for information, or entertainment, we tend to spend no more than 2 minutes on a website before rejecting it. Over half of us spend only 15 seconds on a website before moving on. It’s like using the Tinder app for the information that we constantly browse: ‘Does it attract me? …Nope!’ Then swipe and move on.

Reading 174 newspapers a day

According to the Telegraph newspaper, each of us now takes in information at a rate equivalent to reading 174 newspapers a day. Meanwhile a BBC program estimated that in a single day we each absorb as much data as someone in the 15th century over their entire life. You could ask ‘Who says?’ And you could also argue about what constitutes information and data. (If I see a bird sitting in a tree, how much ‘data’ is that, compared to 15 seconds surfing a website?)

So I know these very broad statements can't be measured accurately, but I agree with them in principle. We are drowning in ‘information’, and the response of many people is to therefore do everything faster. I have been recently listening to the profound wisdom of Peter Drucker on the audible app, at 1.5 times speed. He was the author of The Effective Executive, and I have started re-reading the 50th anniversary edition, while at the same time listening to the audiobook version. It’s very useful, but then I realized that by listening at 1.5 times speed, I was actually skipping though the detail. My brain simply couldn’t process the information fast enough to consciously remember what I was hearing. If I hadn’t been also reading the hardcopy, I wouldn’t have known what I was missing.

Skim, delete… skim, delete…

And yet this is the sort of process that I, and most everyone else does all the time. Our email inbox is chock full every day, so we skim through the mass of messages. Maybe we make the right decision most of the time in sending an email to the trash. Or maybe not. Obviously emails from colleagues and clients must be carefully read. We deepdive into those. But perhaps of those that we skim, there is vital information tucked away in there. A great opportunity, an investment, or even a cry for help. But we don’t have time to read everything word for word, so we skim… and hit delete.

The result of this sort of process is that we think we know a great deal of the world, but it’s only written in headlines. In fact we know very little, and what we don’t know is supermassively bigger than what we do know. You probably are aware of Donald Rumsfeld, American Secretary of Defense some twenty years ago, and his celebrated soundbite about ‘Unknown unknowns’. You can check it out on YouTube, but basically he was outlining that our greatest danger comes from not knowing the extent of our own ignorance.

Burn after reading?


We have access to unparalleled stores of knowledge, and yet we continuously only scratch the surface. Is understanding just 10% of a subject ever enough? Or to put it another way – how safe would you feel being flown by a pilot, or operated on by a surgeon, who was only one tenth of the way through their training?
As business people and entrepreneurs, giving our full attention to the collection of knowledge and data is one of the most crucial commitments we can make to ensuring success – for ourselves and all of our stakeholders. Information is not for burning.

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