Knowledge is power. However, for many project managers, maneuvering into this position of control can be a serious challenge that doesn’t go away just by being effective in managing email or being able to read a pivot table.
The sheer quantity of data and information that is processed in a day on even a moderate sized project can be intimidating. Scale this up to a major program and the data flow can be simply overwhelming.
There are plenty of strategies to optimize the use of your valuable time for focusing on the most important issues. Time management is a highly important skill every project manager must master, deciding for themselves which philosophy, skills, and tools they’ll use to maximize productivity. While really important for effective project management, time management doesn’t solve the problem of too much data and information.
Too much data and information is as challenging for project managers as too many meetings. The sheer volume becomes counterproductive and in some situations, dangerous.
An equally important skill project managers must cultivate is information management. Without solid information management skills, a project manager can be buried under input and lose sight of the forest for the trees, a situation referred to as information blindness.
Information Management Skill Eliminates Information Blindness
Information blindness happens when we’re presented with too much information in a format that isn’t easy to comprehend. For example, let’s say that you are used to seeing construction status reports in a quad-chart format with schedule in a Gantt-chart format and a stop-light chart depicting that relative status of key tasks from the WBS. However, on a new project the construction managers are submitting the status reports in written, bullet list format.
You’re used to seeing the information in graphical format. Now you’re receiving the same type of information in written form, and it doesn’t make sense. It’s not that you can’t understand the data. It’s that the information is coming to you in a format that you can’t easily comprehend. To solve this problem, you’ll have to either force yourself to digest the long-form version or have the data re-packaged into the graphical/tabular format you’re used to.
A similar situation of information blindness arises when the data is presented in a way that might be understood, but doesn’t generate the correct decision-making knowledge in the individual viewing the data. Imagine a change management panel viewing a project update that uses stoplight charts to depict the number and cost of changes on a portfolio of projects under implementation.
The stoplight charts concisely convey the project information and look great, but they do not convey data that members on the change management panel really need to better understand specific cost and scope variances for individual projects. They may discern general cost and scope trends, but can’t ask the right questions about individual projects. The lack of information quality reduces decision quality.
Information blindness can also afflict us on even the most mundane issues. Ever feel overwhelmed by too many choices when out shopping? I know this from a funny, personal story. My wife and I had just moved back to the U.S. after living overseas for seven years and were visiting a grocery store for the first time. We hit the cereal aisle and were faced with cereals we didn’t know existed or that anyone would even need! In fact, there were so many, we went with Cheerios, a default.
The issue in each of these scenarios has to do with absorbing data and making sense of it. Both engineers and project managers share this problem. We’re blessed with an analytical mind and amazing technology that gives us more information than any one of us can consume.
Unfortunately, all that information combined with our natural bent to want to make sense of it can lead to shut downs with the data or information isn’t readily consumable in the right format needed for decision-quality knowledge.
Give any of us too much information, too many choices, or package data in way we’re not able to comprehend, and our minds will work to simplify the complex. In some cases, this will be defaulting to a decision choice we are comfortable with, although it may be wrong, or simply not choose at all.
How do you solve the problem of too much information or incorrectly packaged information? You do that be minding the gap. That is, by creating disfluency.
Mind the Gap for Optimal Information Management
Disfluency is essentially reworking data or information in a way that makes it more effectively absorbed. I came across this concept while reading Charles Duhigg’s book, Smarter, Faster, Better. In the book, Duhigg presents various examples of how individuals enhanced their effectiveness in decision making or performance on cognitive tasks by manipulating data and information in new ways in order for it to make sense.
When one is faced with data, information or a situation that is familiar, the tendency is for our mind to default to the simplest response by relying on a script, or heuristic. Heuristics help us move through life without having to consciously think through every single action we take. So, when faced with too much, or ineffectively packaged, data or information, our mind will seek the simplest response…which may be to simply do nothing.
As a project manager, you will definitely be faced with information that is not ready for you to comprehend it. The way to solve this problem is to create a gap – disfluency – with the information so you can more readily absorb it.
To create a disfluency with data or information, you need to manipulate it into a different format in order to put in a format that makes sense to you. Often times this means forcibly slowing down the mind by rolling up your sleeves and getting dirty with the data or information. For example, in any situation I’m faced with where I have to absorb a large volume of important information I handwrite it out.
That’s right, I write.
It may seem archaic to pick-up pen and handwrite out information in a notebook, but the physical act of my writing the information creates the gap in thought I need to absorb the information. I did this when preparing for my professional engineer’s licensure exam nearly twenty years ago, did it in preparation for my PMP exam, and I’m doing it now as I prepare to sit for the Program Management certification exam. For me, I create disfluency by hand writing data and information.
Besides handwriting out data and information, one can also create disfluency by:
Talking Through the Data or Information. Often times talking with a project team member about project data or information can help unlock insights that were hidden. You’re creating a disfluent environment by having a conversation about the information with another person versus simply looking at it on your computer screen or a print out.
Talking through issues helps create a gap because you can’t talk as quickly as you can think. To coherently articulate thoughts, you have to slow down and “make sense” of the data and information. Doing this forces the mind to slow down how it processes information allowing for new patterns or insights to emerge.
Walk, Work Out, or Write. I’ve already touched on hand writing information in order to create a gap, which happens because the process of handwriting is much slower than reading, so the mind has to process the information more slowly than by just reading it.
You can also create gaps by taking a walk or hitting the gym. You may already be attuned to these two tactics and if not, you might want to take them up. I tend to opt for the work out option, hitting the gym mid-day to generate a mental break from the daily grind. However, I’ve also found the walk to be a highly effective way to disconnect the mind from information.
Feel free to research the biochemical and cognitive reasons why each of these tactics work – just know that empirically you’re likely to discover that they do. I lived in Germany for a couple years prior to moving to the U.K. and lived near research centers for HP and IBM. While I’d go for runs midday on the trails in the area, I’d come across scores of people from these centers out for walks or runs, as well. Perhaps these engineers and project managers were on to something.
Give the Information Some Space. You’ve likely experienced a situation where you were working on an information-intensive issue and hit a wall, not able to come to a solution or feeling that you understood what you were looking at. Frustrated, you walked away from the information for the day, week or longer. Coming back to the information you immediately saw the crux of the issue and how to proceed. Success.
The gap created by giving the information space provided your mind with time to absorb the information and subconsciously process it. Returning to it, you were able to immediately have the insight that you lacked when the information was either too new or simply too complex to quickly absorb. Next time you hit a road block in making sense of data or information, let it age like a fine wine by giving your mind a gap between initial viewing and responding.
Mind Mapping. Mind mapping is a process of graphically representing data and information. It allows one to visually organize information into hierarchical or nodal groupings. This activity provides disfluency through manipulation of information from whatever form it may currently exist into a visual format. It’s helpful for identifying relationships between components and developing new insights from how components of information relate to different aspects of a project or situation you are working on.
The intent behind these tactics is to create a gap between the information and the response. This is done in order to allow the mind an opportunity to generate different outcomes or glean new insights. If you’ve ever had an “aha” moment with an issue on which you’ve been wrestling with, then you’ve experienced the benefit of disfluency.
Information management is more than just a skill for how to handle email or where to file documents. It also includes how one works with data and information in order to create decision-quality knowledge.