If we cannot avoid living in a world that drenches us with information – still, we can and must select for our processing the information that is likely to be useful to us and ignore the rest.
– Herbert Simon
Herbert Simon was one of those multidisciplinary luminaries who could sort through data and get to the point. He was the psychologist, sociologist, economist, and political scientist who coined the term perpetual bias. Simon was not the only one confronted with overwhelming quantities of data. According to a recent McKinsey report, US companies with more than 1,000 employees typically store more than 235 terabytes of data. That’s more than all the data in the US Library of Congress.
Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink.
– Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Salience is what stands out, but salient data may be a long way from what is meaningful, informative, or useful. Without the capability to distil our data into something of value, it will be as useless to us as the salty sea was to the ancient mariner.
We can ignore much of our data. But what should we ignore? And what might we miss that is of value? Ignorance is often a synonym for dull wits and oafishness, but it doesn’t necessarily mean not knowing what we should know. It can also be a way to conserve attention.
When we (positively) ignore one thing, we free our attention to focus on something else. The ability to know the difference between what is relevant and valuable and what is not is an underused skill. This is sometimes easier said than done. We may filter information that keeps us from accessing the data we need. Moreover, in this filtering system we may throw our baby out with the bathwater.
Filters Reduce and Eliminate Data Available to Decision Makers
At the top of this chart is a sea of data. It’s so vast and diverse our minds can’t take it in. Our organization captures what it thinks is useful, potentially useful, or relevant – and ignores the rest. For example, the fashion industry would be interested in such things as cultural trends, colour, and design information but would ignore data on cabbage harvests or life expectancies of zoo animals. This is a formal filter.
Below the formal filter is the availability filter. Only data readily at hand is available. Any brainstorming activity operates by going beyond the obvious first-choice answers. However, the availability filter works in atmospheres of pressure and urgency where there is a mistaken belief there is no need to go beyond what is right in front of us. In fact, anything that is not easily accessible is ignored.
The brain capacity filter is next. Some of us find it difficult to walk and chew gum at the same time; others are multitasking masters. Nevertheless, we humans are biologically determined. We can only manage so much input before we become confused and forgetful. Fortunately, technology extends our reach and allows us to manage information at the speed of light. But even the result of huge amounts of data synthesis must eventually be understood by human brains. We often fall into the trap of paying attention to what we can easily understand rather than what we need to understand.
The last filter is perceptual bias. Certain minds automatically reject certain concepts. Some of us have deeply held beliefs that resist being uprooted despite evidence to the contrary. When facts conflict with our views of the world we can – or should – change our views. On the other hand, when perceptions or facts conflict with our beliefs, this causes a confusing state of cognitive dissonance. A typical response is to go into defence mode and dogmatically hold on even tighter to our previous positions. The danger here is we can become so threatened we delude ourselves and explain facts in a way so we don’t have to change our thinking.
Each of these filters reduces the available and relevant data upon which we make pragmatic decisions. The good news here is that simply being aware of these filters can help us make better decisions. Real power comes when we merge and synthesize pieces of data to arrive at a new measure or indicator.
PPM is future-based. We are making decisions about the future. And the future by definition is uncertain. Our task is to make it as certain as possible, and at the same time be aware that our best guesses, even though they are based upon the finest possible information, are still best guesses. This is what we mean by subjective data. Despite our impulse for certainty, we should always keep in mind we are dealing with what might be versus what is. This makes achieving PPM data integrity and maintaining it no more difficult than brain surgery and rocket science combined. But don’t be put off. There is a way.
PPM is a comprehensive business process designed to arrive at the highest quality data possible. And by quality, I mean relevant to our purpose and useful. Through data visualization we turn our high-quality data into insights and knowledge that becomes the decision ground during debates that determine project-portfolio items for inclusion or exclusion.
Related Articles by Michael Menard:
PPM as a Central Nervous System – We use collected data to analyze, track, and communicate a portfolio of projects. Nevertheless, the most critical use of data collection for PPM is enabling effective decision making and selecting the right portfolio of projects. The quality of the data collected has a profound impact on the project and portfolio selection.
The New Diamonds – Many companies who have implemented the new discipline project and portfolio capability have discovered their “Acres of Diamonds.” When implemented well, the return on a proven PPM capability can deliver dramatic payback.
Complexity Busting – The best-in-class project-selection process reduces complexity and accelerates good decision making.
Lost Keys – In the absence of a holistic view of your entire portfolio of projects and lack of defined process, you rely on guesswork. Under pressure or through habit you revert to doing what you know how to do. Rationality goes out of the window.
A Thousand Cuts – Each decision inflicts pain. Often this pain goes unnoticed – for a while. But sooner or later, the consequences make themselves felt. Weak growth, dwindling profit, and a slow erosion of value make up make up the predictable declining trajectory. Failure to create profit rarely comes from one single cataclysmic disaster.
A Mouthful of Fish – For the puffin, choosing the biggest fish is an instinctive demonstration of efficiency, value, and execution. So how do we know which are the biggest fish for us?
My Moment of Truth – The event that changed my career happened on December 14, 1996, at precisely 6.30 a.m. I was commuting. The radio was on. I wasn’t paying attention until these words hit me like a sock to the jaw: do not go to your grave with your music still inside you. Then the idea burst into being.