Bogged Down in Endless Emails and Reports? How to Deal with Information Overload

Youre sitting in a conference room. Its 20 minutes into the meeting and the presenter finally makes it to slide four of 32; at least you can read this one, unlike the others, which were crammed with numbers, graphs and charts. You look around, wondering if anyone else is following the presentation. Its hard to give your full attention knowing that after the meeting youll dive into your inbox which is now filled with a sea of unopened emails. Your day is slipping away again.

We have become a world of data addicts. And while increased amounts of data can be advantageous, it also comes with the feeling of, How do I make sense of all this? Cant we break this down into a handful of simple points? Critical questions about market demand, customer buying behavior, subscriber acquisition, brand positioning and your products roadmap are great. However, the interesting discussion comes to a screeching halt when the data arrives. Instead of being a well-arranged piece of music, it is a mashup of sounds. The volume drowns the substance.

Data Rehab

Information is essential to making intelligent decisions, but more often than not, it simply overwhelms us. The 24/7 data explosion around us is both troubling and addictive. Consider that this year, The Economist estimates we will create 1,200 exabytes of data or more than 22 million times the amount of information contained in all the books ever written. Thats 8X the amount in 2005 and the annual volume is increasing geometrically. The question isnt how to stop the deluge, but how to get real value from it. How do you find the truly essential nuggets of information and use them with confidence to effectively grow your business and distinguish yourself in your company?

The answer, ironically enough, is found in asking questions. The smartest person in the room is the one that knows the questions to ask to separate the wheat from the chaff. This leads to discovering relevant facts, developing insights and delivering them with impact. Adapted from Drinking From the Fire Hose, below are three questions to ask yourself whenever you are suffering from information overload:

Ask What Surprised You? to Foster Dialogue                             

The key is to foster real dialogue, so try asking your colleagues, What surprised you? At first you may not get a response but press the point and wait for new information to surface. Why? Because surprises are bias killers. Surprises make people think differently. This question will spur new discussion, uncover fresh learning and lead to new insights that separate meaningless facts from relevant information. The question exposes outliers in the data, draws connections between seemingly unrelated conclusions and opens different avenues of discussion with your colleagues. We must get in the habit of looking for things we dont expect.

Ask Should You Believe the Squiggly Line? to Counter Short-term Thinking

Short-term thinking can be fatal to businesses, especially those focused on quarterly reporting. Businesses will often zero in on small, quantitative short-term improvements when assessing macro, strategic issues. While they may be statistically significant, are they meaningful? An over-reliance on short-term data to make long-range plans is like using a magnifying glass to look for something on the horizon you can see the little details but that doesnt allow you to see anything down the road.

Relying on short-term data is not just misleading it also robs you and your business of the continuity and equilibrium on which long- term success depends. The most effective way to discuss results is to consider just three factors: the absolute score, or todays numbers; the competitive score, which is how your company is doing relevant to its competitors; and the score over time, or how you are faring against your competitors over the long-term.  By triangulating these three easily measured data points, you can gain almost all the perspective youll need and ensure that you dont get hung up on short-term thinking.

Ask Who are Our Swing Voters? to Revive the Customer Conversation

Successful businesses generate additional revenue without incurring new marketing cost. This simple, but powerful maxim is the key to driving profitable growth. It is important to know this and figure out how to apply it to your business. Popular wisdom states that neutral customers do not matter. Businesses typically focus on the extremely satisfied customers, yielding no new revenue or critics wholl never switch to your brand. Yet, winning the neutral customer or swing voter can be the most cost-effective method for driving growth.

To find your swing voter customer, first categorize your customers as favorable, neutral or unfavorable; then segment your neutral customers within categories as leaners, neutrals or defectors. This could yield the greatest potential for low-cost growth by locking in customers who were on the fence.

Drinking from the Fire Hose

We live in a time when information is exploding and often feels invasive or intimidating. In reality, we are fortunate to have this staggering amount of information at our finger tips, but we need to master the fire hose of information. Andrew Lang once said, People use statistics as a drunken man uses lamp posts for support rather than for illumination. Consider asking smarter questions to reveal better answers, and be the catalyst that changes the dialogue in your company and with your customers.

Christopher J. Frank is vice president of business-to-business and communications research at American Express, and Paul Magnone is vice president of business development and alliances at Openet Telecom. They are co-authors of Drinking from the Fire Hose: Making Smarter Decisions Without Drowning in Information (Portfolio/Penguin, September 2011), from which part of this article was adapted.