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Business leaders: Are you drinking from the fire hose?

3 min read


This guest post is by Christopher Frank, vice president of business-to-business and communications research at American Express, and Paul Magnone, vice president for business development and alliances at Openet. Christopher and Paul are co-authors of “Drinking from the Fire Hose: Making Smarter Decisions Without Drowning in Information.”

Another spray-and-pray meeting: You’re sitting in a large conference room, listening to a presenter move through line after line of numbers, charts and graphs. He’s on slide four of 37 and clearly using the “spray and pray” approach — cramming as much information he can on the slides and praying someone in the room will see something relevant. You look around the room and wonder — is anyone absorbing what he’s saying?

For many of us, we find ourselves in these types of meetings every day, and this is just the beginning. We have sales and profit numbers, forecasted business trends, projections, investment cases, public filings and thick strategy decks. Beyond that, Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and countless other networks give us direct access from potential and current customers.

We certainly do not lack information today, but the irony is that we feel less informed. We work in a culture that worships numbers and rightly so — facts and figures hold weight. But, quoting Andrew Lang, people use “statistics as a drunken man uses lampposts — for support rather than for illumination.”

Volume drowns out the substance: The challenge is not keeping your head above the flood of data, but to learn how to separate information from facts and how to inspire others to act. We know exactly how it feels to be drowning in the deluge of data. We work on the front lines of large corporations and are tasked to make high-level decisions, lead teams and juggle multiple priorities. Drawing on our experiences, we learned a fundamental lesson: Questions are arguably the most powerful tool to shape decisions.

The solution we developed sounds deceptively simple: Smarter questions lead to better answers. However, learning to ask the right questions at the right time will expose you to new information, point you to connections between seemingly unrelated facts and open new avenues of discussion with your colleagues. We came up with seven basic questions — not complex analytical questions we heard in b-school, but a product of our combined business experience working at IBM, American Express and Microsoft.

Data rehab: At the end of the day, there are a select few who understand the power of data, know the questions to ask, connect it to their larger business strategy and use it to engage customers and achieve revenue objectives. We have seen innovations wasted, opportunities missed and customers lost because most people don’t know how to create and deliver insights.

To get started, it’s critical to take a step away from it all and ask, “What is the one vital piece of information you need to move forward?” In other words, what problem are you solving and what is the critical data point that focuses the decision that will help you drive growth, introduce new products or figure out how to keep the lights on? This is your “Essential Question” and can help you move from data to strategy.

This question and others can serve as a catalyst for new thinking — your life preservers in the vast data pool of valuable information mixed in with meaningless gobbledygook. So as you examine your strategy for 2011 and beyond: What’s your essential question?