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Strategy Session: Managing Information Overload

How to stay informed and connected without getting overwhelmed

Marzena Czarnecka is a Calgary-based business writer. She can be reached at strategy@albertaventure.com

Jan 1, 2013

by Marzena Czarnecka

You have 350 unanswered emails in your inbox (50 of them marked URGENT. Gah). A dozen of them – no, wait, 13 … here’s another one – are invitations to connect on LinkedIn. Your marketing advisor keeps forwarding you links from his Twitter feed (does she expect you to read them all? Does she read them all?) And the stack of letters and magazines in your inbox? You’re pretty sure they’re procreating in there when the lights go off. Actually, maybe that’s what’s going on in your electronic inbox, too …

Here’s the quandary. You want to stay informed, connected, on top of it all. You need to do that to be an effective leader and business person today, right? But instead, you feel overwhelmed. Flooded. Freaked! What you need to know is lost in the sheer volume of what’s being thrown at you. Worse, struggling to keep on top of your mounting mountain of email and news feeds is keeping you from focusing on what really matters: running and growing your business.

article_strategyIllustration Alexi Vella

Have you realized yet that your inability to control the information being thrown at you is impeding your effectiveness as a leader? Excellent. That’s the first step in getting a handle on it, says Fred Jacques, consulting principal at Jacques & Associates. Information overload is an issue for virtually all business people today, he says, but you can’t start developing effective strategies for managing it until you realize that the status quo is stressing you out and diminishing your effectiveness.

You know what comes next, right? You’ve heard it before: turn off the notification beep on your computer. Check your email and voice mail at specific times of day rather than as messages flow in. Delete unnecessary messages immediately. Put the CrackBerry in your desk drawer until you’re ready to really deal with it. Yadda yadda yadda. Old school advice for the new-tech world. W. Brett Wilson is on Twitter constantly and has 50,000+ followers. Does he ever stop checking and texting and disseminating? You want to be seen as a thought-leader, you want to be on top of everything there is to know in your industry, and that means … Stop. And listen carefully to the questions Judy Schmidt, executive coach at Bluewheat, has for you. She’s not going to talk about putting brakes on when and how you check your email. Instead, she wants you to ponder the big picture. “What is it that you want? What’s your vision? Where are you going? What do you really want to achieve in your career, with your business?” See, managing information isn’t a silo – it’s got to be part of your overall career and business strategy. It has got to fit in with the big picture.

“Eighty per cent of the information that crosses our desks or comes to us through our computers and devices is information we don’t really need.” – Judy Schmidt, executive coach, Bluewheat

You want to have as many followers on Twitter as Wilson? Why? “Let’s say you do that. What’s the impact of all of that on your business five years from now?” asks Schmidt. As Schmidt sees it, that’s the biggest price of the information overload many executives are suffering from right now: by trying to stay on top of too much – by keeping up with the Joneses (or the Wilsons and Nenshis) – they lose sight of their own big picture. They forget to prioritize.

“Eighty per cent of the information that crosses our desks or comes to us through our computers and devices is information we don’t really need,” Schmidt says. But unless you know exactly what it is you do need – and why you need it – it’s hard to make the call to delete that message, cancel that newsletter subscription or following that particular news feed.

So – step one, realize you have a problem. Step two, remind yourself of your priorities – running your business effectively and towards a measurable, predetermined goal should be atop that pile. Step three– take a hard look at your “firehoses.”

Firehoses, in the digital and social media world, are your information delivery channels – and they include everything from your email inbox to that non-digital pile of newsletters languishing in the top left corner of your desk. If it dumps information into your life, it’s a firehose. Now, given what your business (and personal) priorities are, look at each hose and ask yourself whether you want it on or off and how strong or steady a stream you need from it.

For most executives, email continues to be the dominant firehose, the most effective communication tool and the worst culprit all in one. “Email is still at the root of information overload for most executives,” says Jacques. It interrupts their attempts at “focused” work; it makes them delete messages without reading them (and then worry they’ve missed something important); it ensures they stay connected while they’re away – and so they never take a real vacation.

“You need to accept that you can’t read every email and you can’t respond to every request,” Jacques says. He counsels people to develop “a set of metrics and principles” of what you will pay attention to and then – this is the important part – “communicate that to key contacts.” That might mean telling the people in your organization you emphatically do not want to be cc’ed on every minute email exchange and fostering a “please think twice before sending this email” culture in your company. Or making it known that you respond to email twice a day – or four times a day, or once every 24 hours, whatever works for you. It should mean actively culling the number of association and service provider newsletters you’ve inadvertently subscribed to over the past 10 years. Do you need a securities law alert from every law firm you’ve ever hired? A capital markets update from every investment bank? Probably not. Be ruthless.

But, but … you need some of this information! Not all of it, but every once in a while, the investment bankers share something pretty critical to your business and The Economist has an article everyone is talking about and … OK. You know what great leaders do? They delegate and train, says Jamie Anderson, executive and business coach at Spark Success Coaching. Narrow the output from that firehose by putting it into the hands of someone else on your team – your assistant, your business development director or the underutilized receptionist who hardly ever takes a phone call anymore. And invest time in training this person to understand what it is you need to know, and what, given your priorities, is meaningless chatter. “Too many times when people do delegate this aspect of their role to someone else, they don’t follow through with training that person, the work doesn’t get done the way they want it to get done and they end up taking it back,” Anderson cautions. So if you’re going to delegate, first train.

Know what else great leaders do? They learn from others. Jacques freely admits he’s not as great at keeping up with all the newest trends in his field as some of his colleagues. Is he struggling to catch up? Nope. He uses the information fiends in his network as his personal filters. He has two “mentors” in particular – one his senior in years and the other considerably his junior, because when it comes to current knowledge acquisition, advanced age is not necessarily an asset – and his digital and face-to-face interactions with them keep him in the professional loop as much, if not more so, than indiscriminate subscriptions to industry newsletters.

Know what great leaders don’t do? They don’t ignore problems that impede their effectiveness, or new technologies and methods of becoming more efficient and connected.

Ignoring a problem doesn’t fix it any more than ignoring a “new” information firehose like Twitter – or a connecting tool like LinkedIn – somehow keeps you atop your current information flow. “What you need to do is ask questions, evaluate, prioritize – make an intentional choice about how much time you want it to take and what you want the impact of that choice to be,” Schmidt says. In other words: keep the eye on the big picture. Always. And make sure the choices you make around the information flow in and out of your life are consistent with that big picture.

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