Throughout my career, I have found a passion for helping organizations succeed by implementing processes that help employees and teams perform at their highest potential. Candidly, sometimes I have been successful, and in others, I learned spectacularly (a subtle way of saying, I failed). Some of these proposed processes are specific, defined, and document workflows. Others are less specific, more a collection of thoughts based on my experience and lessons learned. Below I offer a framework informed by the collection of broad concepts and more defined processes that I have learned from others, forming my own framework, for processing the flood of information I routinely face. My intent in this piece is not to provide a step-by-step “how to” for processing information, but to identify pivotal points of reference, perspective, or framing to help you develop your own framework for information triage. We should lift others as we are lifted, and exchanging perspectives is just one of the ways we support one another – let's start now.
Since I left the relative security of federal civil service to enter the start-up world, I have, fortunately (yes, I do mean this as a good thing) experienced most of the challenges that go along with the “start-up life;” the long hours, late nights, excitement about new deals – then no deal, building new business units and processes from scratch, tearing some of those same processes down to start over again, adding new faces along the way, and excessive coffee runs… you get my point.
But more importantly, there have been times when I was thrilled by achievement as we crossed a major milestone, won a new deal, or kicked off a new contract. Despite those moments, there are many instants where I feel bogged down by the ebb and flow of change and evolving uncertainty. Constantly building, problem-solving, maintaining delivery standards, and meeting your boss, colleague, or clients’ expectations can be exhausting. Sometimes I succeeded in bringing calm energy to my team. On other occasions, I became stuck in paralysis by analysis – nervous to get it wrong, struggling to prioritize and sort information, thus bringing lower productivity to the team. The very thing I wanted to avoid was easy to fall into. I realized that no piece of software or tool was going to solve this for me. I recognized the need to recalibrate my mental function, but how? After struggling a bit, good fortune in the form of two separate conversations with close friends and mentors revealed a path forward. Usually, our conversations centered around topics about continuously striving to be and do better for both yourself and the organizations of which you are a part. But these particular conversations, a week apart nonetheless, centered on how a person takes in and considers the information to encourage forward progress, something to which I had not given careful thought. The concept of an Information Processing & Response Framework appeared, with both conversations referencing frameworks used by others (Boyd’s OODA Loop and George Washington’s Listen, Learn, Help Lead). While these two frameworks each provide an amazing basis for processing information and constructive engagement with others, I knew I would need to develop my own Information Processing & Response Framework to serve my needs and those of my team in our business domain. Now, nothing I am about to write is new, but rather a collection of concepts, tools, and principles that I have learned and use to process information. I have built the framework below as a useful tool for myself. My hope is that others may use it to counter that overwhelming feeling of information overload.
This simple graphic has helped me think through a variety of situations in my work and personal life. Prior to developing this thought framework, I often responded hastily and emotionally to information as it was presented. Rather than force emotional control, this framework prompts more deliberate consideration and actions prior to a decision. Learning this method took time and practice. It did not happen overnight.
It begins with the inbound information.
Be open or welcoming to new information. You don’t know what you’re missing and its value if you discount or avoid opportunities to receive it (i.e., observing or listening). Also, the receptive posture you set will either encourage or deter future opportunities to gain updates or new information.
What is the message or nature of the data? This equates to orienting or learning in the aforementioned models. Importantly, it requires deliberate and effortful consideration that we have to force ourselves not to overlook or rush. You can’t answer the next question without taking this fundamental step.
What do I need to do with it? Do I need to …
Act: Respond or act immediately if it takes less than 5 or 10 minutes or a time cap works for you – the intent is to limit time reworking or processing simple actions items two or three times.
If it takes more than 10 minutes: Make a choice. Do you need to plan for a large undertaking or project? Is it urgent and important? Should you defer to later or defer to others with better positions to do this work or complete the action? Seek out the best plan of action and continue in your progress.
Know (Be Aware Of):
Do I need to know this information for another purpose or future action? Yes or No. In a personal way, acknowledge that you have received the information. This informs the sender you are aware of the information and if action is required you are processing that action and next steps. Then move to the next task.
If this information concerns a project or responsibility outside your purview, redirect/connect the source to those needing the information and defer; avoid putting unnecessary effort towards information that does not concern you.
Implementing this framework is challenging at first; however, with consistent application, it can quickly become muscle memory. On days when I am off my game and do not put these steps into practice – I lose focus through trying to process the multitude of inbound information as if everything is equally important and become overwhelmed, if not paralyzed. On days that I am intentional with my process – decisions come quickly, actions flow seamlessly, and I feel effective.
The dedication required means that I am attentive to my energy and how I respond to what is happening now. When my energy is low, I rely more on my process to power through managing information. When my energy is high, and I apply my process, that is when I achieve the highest levels of productivity. Another byproduct of this process is clear and efficient communication. I avoid those long-winded responses that lead to confusion and limit re-work or spin out of time on trivial details or tasks. The overall success of the model comes from the comfort of an established rhythm and practice.
If this model or construct seems demanding or too difficult to apply, but you constantly feel overwhelmed by the influx of information – simply start by asking yourself a few of these questions:
How do I process information?
Do I have a system? Framework? Model?
Or another approach to guide me through decisions and actions?
There are a talented few whose brains are naturally wired in this way. For the rest of us, putting a practical framework at the forefront of our minds is key to intentional decision-making, clearer communication, and making forward progress. What is your thought process framework? Finally, I would be remiss if did not thank Jeff Draeger and David Rosen for their friendship and guidance, as well as their contributions and inputs to this post.