Leadership

Make better decisions with less information

Is it possible to have too much information to make a decision? The obvious answer is yes, but what's key is how you define what 'too much' information is. By minimizing the amount of information about a situation, you can come up with a better decision making result.

Is it possible to have too much information to make a decision? The obvious answer is yes, but what's key is how you define what "too much" information is. By minimizing the amount of information about a situation, you can come up with a better decision- making result.

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When you're trying to make a decision, is it possible to have too much information and data? As IT professionals, we know the answer to that question. It's yes. If there's too much data at hand, it's hard to distinguish between what's relevant and what's not. Key data points can get lost in the flood of information. The overwhelming amount of data can make you miss the trees for the forest and you wind up with a bad decision.

The most important thing, as shown in the video here, is how much information is "too much." There's a very fine line between enough information to make a good decision and too much. Even too much seemingly relevant information can be overwhelming and lead to wrong results.

Users, on the other hand, often want us to provide reports, data points, charts, and graphs on every aspect of their job. While we can do that quite easily, we're not doing them any favors. Instead, we should help them focus on the very few data points that will help focus the decision-making process rather than giving them the firehose in the face.

Let's go to the video

This video comes from TechRepublic's sister site BNET. It features Blink author, Malcom Gladwell from the RSA Conference in San Francisco in 2008. Malcolm makes the contention that people often make too many poor decisions by focusing on "marginal pieces of information."

He makes the point by discussing studies that have been done with emergency room doctors who deal with patients with chest pain. When assessing patients, doctors who looked at only four specific pieces of information were more successful in diagnosing the type of chest pain than those who looked at wider information.

By focusing on the answers to just four areas, doctors were able to use their professional judgment to make better decisions. Even though considering other information would help identify fringe cases, the overall success rate improved when information was narrowed rather than expanded.

The key point to his discussion is the fact that a professional's judgment can be overwhelmed by too much information, even if some of it can be considered relevant.

Translating it to IT

Translating that to an IT context is relatively straightforward. You're probably familiar with users who are constantly asking for new reports or new dashboards to keep up with information. The information you're providing is never quite right, and you have to keep making changes to accommodate their latest flailings.

The problem, as is typical with most users, is they don't really know what they want. Nor do they have the technical expertise to know what we're capable of providing them. Being the good service-oriented IT folk we are, we give them what they ask for, or the best approximation thereof, and invariably it's not right. That's because they wind up with too much information or irrelevant information to be able to make the right choice.

That's where you have to sit down with the users and try to understand their job and precisely what they need. You don't have to be an expert in finance ,for example, but you should have a passable understanding of what the users are doing to take your technical expertise and provide the information necessary for the users to use their professional judgment to make the ultimate decision.

The bottom line for IT leaders

It's important to be able to focus on the trees instead of the forest sometimes. Too much information can become confusing, and it's easy to make the wrong decision because of a clouded judgment. You need to remember that fact, not only for your own decision making, but for your users' as well.

Resist the urging of users to endlessly supply more data. Instead, use your technical expertise in concert with them to help them focus on the trees rather than getting lost in the forest.

2 comments
The Scummy One
The Scummy One

I prefer the magic 8 ball to make decisions without enough information. Either that or in a meeting we'll do rock, paper, scissors or even draw straws. It takes much stress off when doing it in this manner.

John Sheesley - TechRepublic Pro
John Sheesley - TechRepublic Pro

One would think that better decision making would be made through having lots of relevant information. Not necessarily. Too much information, even if it is relevant to the decision at hand, can be counter productive. I found a video by Blink author Malcolm Gladwell that discusses this phenomenon. You'll find it on Decision Central: http://blogs.techrepublic.com.com/decisioncentral/?p=162 Does he have a point? Is there such a thing as too much relevant information? And if so, how much is too much?

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