A thought on how we are affected by the volume of meaningless noise.
This is an unusual paragraph. I’m curious as to how quickly you can find out what is so unusual about it. It looks so ordinary and plain that you would think nothing was wrong with it. In fact, nothing is wrong with it! It is highly unusual though. Study it, think about it, but you still may not find anything odd. If you work at it a bit you might just find out. Good luck!
The above puzzle may be familiar to those who often need to make decisions. There’s an initial acceptance that a puzzle has been set, time needs to be spent studying the data and, finally, a decision needs to be made. However, distractions (like reading this sentence) can reduce the focus and provide more information to process. This isn’t a trivial point as the fortune of companies rests solely on whether the decisions made turn out to be the right ones.
As part of my role in life of expanding the way people think, I assist others in understanding and capitalising on the effect that technology has on society and business. Evidently the need has never been greater. More than ever before, the volume of distraction is sky high, especially from connected technology. There have never been so many distractions competing for our attention, making decisions progressively harder. This is partly why it’s hard to spot there are no e’s in the initial paragraph.
In 2016, a single minute saw the emergence of 44.4 million WhatsApp messages sent, 422,340 new tweets, 205,600 million emails, 3.1 million searches, 400 hours of uploaded video on YouTube and 3.3 million Facebook posts, according to Smart Insights.
I’d wager that one of your several digital devices is competing with me right now for your attention. I’m envious; I don’t have neon flashing lights or an icon that displays numbers, rising on a minute-by-minute basis.
I call these distractions ‘noise’. The opposite of noise is ‘signal’, which is what really matters to us in a meaningful way. As we become more connected to each other, we find it harder to filter out the noise to find the signal.
I believe this is the primary reason for many of the negative aspects of modern life, including bad decision-making that often leads to business failure.
I’m convinced that as things progress there will be an increasing need to ‘De-Noise’. This is the activity of filtering meaning out of distraction and has been a major outcome of the sessions I run called ‘You to the power of TEN‘.
The Business Disease
The 24/7 Wall Street analysis of “The Worst Business Decisions Of All Time” makes compelling reading, yet there are many other theories as to how bad decisions happen. Today a popular view is that our brains are wired to be what Dan Ariely would call “Predictably Irrational”.
A few decades ago I was lucky enough to be one of the first students of what is now popularised (by people like Ariely) as Behavioural Economics. Even then we were able to show that all decision-making was affected by a collection of heuristics and biases. Since then we’ve had books like “Nudge” by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein and “Freakonomics” by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner that show hundreds of case studies supporting this modern theory.
Despite being very fashionable, this isn’t the only perspective. One can find an alternative analysis within the 2009 book “Think Again – Why Good Leaders Make Bad Decisions” by the Tuck School of Business professor, Sydney Finkelstein. He opens by stating, “Most leaders make bad decisions. Even great leaders can make bad decisions.” His analysis crawls through 83 flawed decisions and finds there are four common “red flag” conditions that can lead to errors in judgement.
1. Misleading experiences – Memories of what is thought to be a similar situation to the present one. For example, a new competitor has emerged in the marketplace and it reminds you of the time when you competed by lowering prices. Your subsequent success in your memory is firmly and forever linked to the price drop. Due to this, your strategic decisions are already biased toward lowering prices.
2. Misleading pre-judgements – Where previous decisions or judgements influence your thinking. For example, if you tend to start a new job by immediately replacing the sales and marketing team, you are biased towards repeating the same behaviour, regardless of whether it is the most suitable thing to do in the present situation. It’s just what you do.
3. Inappropriate self-interests – Subconscious personal agenda that conflicts with the job in hand or the outcome of the business. For example, if a hidden driver is personal fame and recognition at almost any expense, this will affect the decisions that are made even without being fully aware that this agenda is being applied to other contexts.
4. Inappropriate attachments – Loyalty and alliances that overrule rational or logical decisions. For example, giving a particular team member more responsibility even if they didn’t deserve it, or appointing a particular supplier even if they are not the best you could have chosen.
Finkelstein said: “Trust in our own judgement is so engrained it can make us ignore red flags that warn that a decision was flawed from the start. That’s how bad decisions get made.”
Finkelstein’s theories are supported by looking at how I’ve observed decisions to be made – starting with information (i.e. inbound data from outside), into perception (i.e. how we view the information, sub-consciously guided by our heuristics and biases) and finally resulting with our decision (i.e. the chosen way forward).
In conclusion Finkelstein states that the antidote to this situation is in:
- Open-mindedness – Decision makers should be more open to new ideas and not afraid to look outside their comfort zones.
- Own up to mistakes – Being brave enough to admit when they’re wrong.
- Awareness and acceptance of change – In his own words: “Good leaders will get multiple sources of information and get honest feedback to make sure they are not missing or ignoring something that should be obvious.”
Personally I believe the 3rd point is the most problematic as if you initially perceive information ineffectively, you are ultimately doomed in decision-making.
The reality is that it’s becoming increasingly hard to perceive information effectively as there’s so much information to process. However, paradoxically, we need to access more of the information to ensure we are aware of what is happening around us…
…and the distraction paradox grows by the minute.
The Social Disease
From a human perspective it has become apparent that distractive noise is impacting our lives regardless of whether we’re at work or not. In any top ten list of unusual medical conditions, “Busy Lifestyle Syndrome” is often mentioned.
Even a quick glance at the symptoms of Busy Lifestyle Syndrome will make you wonder whether it is really unusual or actually very common.
The primary outcome is losing track of the main thing we were thinking or doing. What was front-of-mind gets lost and we end up wrongly prioritising things that get us into all sorts of trouble.
The lead researcher on this, Dr. Alan Wade, says: “Forgetfulness is an ordinary part of getting older but anecdotal evidence suggests that it is now affecting people earlier in life as a result of busy work and home lives, and so-called ‘information overload’ from the various media channels we consume today.”
This manifests as forgetting people’s names, forgetting a task you were meant to carry out, forgetting the values you stand for, forgetting the main reason for doing something, or even repeating an activity you’ve actually already completed.
Researchers have speculated that the condition could be cured by a low dose of the drug memantine, that is used to treat Alzheimer’s Disease. This makes sense if you consider that Alzheimer’s is essentially when the brain can’t convert short-term memories into long-term ones, meaning that memory itself dies away.
There’s a worrying correlation between the volume of noise from connected technology and the increasing volume of relationship breakdowns, and you may have read recently that teenagers are reported to have never been more unhappy, despite being more connected digitally than ever. I’m pretty certain this information is linked to the 53% rise in the diagnoses of ADHD cases. Perhaps there’s even a correlation between these stats and the fact that by the time a child leaves primary school they will have witnessed around 8000 murders on television.
Are we becoming desensitised as a result of the information overload?
Are we losing track as a species of who and what we are?
What does this mean to society and future generations?
Back In Business
In the context of the business world though we are still dealing with humans making decisions. The business context does not remove the social context. We are all still members of society. Walking into an office building doesn’t remove us from the increasing volume of noise in our lives. If anything it turns the dial up and makes the pressure of handling it even greater.
The behavioural economics that impact our decisions happen after the influx of noise. The pressure of the noise kicks in before we even get a chance to be biased.
Noise is the fuel of behavioural economics, accentuating our pre-set conditions, which we default to constantly. The more noise, the more our brain calls on our biases to ‘help’ us and, therefore, the more common it is to make flawed decisions. I believe this is the primary reason why the life expectancy of a business is now nearer 15 years, reduced from around 75 years a century ago.
I believe it is imperative for us to observe what is noise versus signal in our lives, and it is with this priority in mind that I will continue to assist wherever possible.
Taken as an excerpt from ’28 Thoughts On Digital Revolution’ by Jonathan MacDonald, available from Amazon as a paperback and for kindle: http://jonathanmacdonald.com/books/