A throwaway comment from a colleague when getting ready to go to a client meeting started me thinking. She said “There are too many clocks in here – my PC, watch, phone, the two wall clocks – I never know the right time.”
Leaving aside the difficulty of maintaining all of the clocks around you to show the same time (the delays for compression on digital radio and TV adds further confusion to the problem) I started to think about the enormous amount of information that we all take in every day. Rolling news (which is rolling comment in reality), blogs, online press, twitter, timed and ad-hoc business reports and dashboards, emails and IMs of all sorts, all updating frequently. Not to mention the stuff we generate for ourselves.
I remember in the early days of BlackBerry thinking that at least there was an off-switch. These days that is not really so true. Sure, you can switch the device off, but as devices have become more sophisticated and less specialised that becomes less of a realistic option because you lose all of the other benefits. There can be too much data and it is coming at you in a relentless drip feed.
Decisions by their nature require an understanding of the desired outcome, an analysis of the current position and an action. These days it is hard to cut off the data and analyse it. Each new data point may change your mind, especially with strategic and difficult decisions (and why would the CIO be engaged with anything else?), and the data may be ambiguous. You have to switch it off at some point or else all decisions become provisional. Any model is by definition simpler than the entity it models, yet when the whole world is sending back data, you can get overwhelmed with the complexity, and confused by not understanding the accuracy and the precision of your data.
And you know what? I think more and more decisions are provisional these days. Most things can be reversed, they are not one time decisions. We muddle through on provisional decisions, until we’ve moved sufficiently far away from the decision point not to be able to back track. Is that flexible or uncommitted? Is it prudent or wish-washy? But when it comes to systems design there is a big challenge – we really do have to decide. And business colleagues are more comfortable with ambiguity, with allowing a course of action to emerge than we can be in order to deliver a solution to the necessary timescale.
There can be an exaggerated pleasure about some systems being unavailable. A CIO I was with a few evenings ago was enthusiastically telling the story of an F1 team which lost telemetry and had to make some decisions without the usual data which won them the race. Later replays and simulation showed the data would have indicated alternative actions which may have meant the race would have been lost.
Good dinner table conversation. But worrying as it takes hold that it’s us against the machine, and heroics can win through.
Two years ago, the CIO Connect Horizons report showed that the speed of business was now so fast that on any objective basis, intuition had to replace analysis. We suggested at the time that effective intuition required the CIO to be immersed in their business so that they can make great decisions. That seems to be ever more important; gut feel and being attuned with the business and challenges that are being addressed is essential for any leader.
So how do you switch off?