Management No Surprises

The Signal Network

I spend a lot of time listening. A non-trivial act for me because my mind… it wanders. However, I’ve got a system. Feet flat on the ground, slightly clenched jaw, staring you straight in the eyes. I am full body listening. You have my complete attention. I am not missing a word.

We humans are experts at instinctively knowing where attention is focused. In a 1:1 situation, it’s clear from a sub-second glance at my watch to indicate to the other party that my focus is elsewhere. I am not listening. In that second, the quality of discourse plummets because the listening contract is broken.

My educated guess is that 50% of my job as a manager is information acquisition, assessment, and redistribution. It is my primary job and the efficiency with which I do this is a direct contribution to the velocity of the team.

Critical Freshness

In thinking about all the listening I’ve done and information I’ve acquired, I discovered I have a mental model for classifying information. It looks like this:

This grid has two axes. The vertical axis measures the criticality of a given piece of information. Critical information might look like:

  • Jake is about to quit.
  • The arrival rate of critical bugs is rapidly increasing.
  • A meeting just finished between Engineering and Sales where at each other’s throats. Nothing was resolved. Everyone left the meeting mad.

The horizontal axis is where this graph gets interesting. It measures freshness which is a synthetic measure of how long a given piece of information takes to get to the human who gets the most value from its arrival. Confused? Keep reading.

The interpretation of this graph is a very personal thing. You need to consider this graph as a thought experiment through a couple of different lenses. First, what is critical information to one human is irrelevant to another. Jake’s desire to quit is hugely important to his manager but less relevant to someone outside of the organization. Second, and worse, if the Jake information takes two weeks to get to Jake’s manager the information is not fresh and Jake’s manager has less time to take proper action.

Every single human in the organization has their version of this graph, and my thesis is the interpretation of this graph describes the health of your signal network.

Your Signal Network

Your signal network is the combination of all the information sources and all the information generated (or relayed) via those sources. The complete network is a combination of humans and robots, but for the sake of this article, let’s focus on human information sources. Back to the graph.

If you think about your average workday, you are continually discovering pieces of informational. Intentionally and accidentally. In meetings, in hallways, and in the cafe. Your working life is chock full of rapidly arriving information, and your brain must quickly digest, parse, pattern match, and make a judgment regarding each piece of information. What is it? How critical is it? What am I going to do with it? Should I pass it along? And to whom?

Each quadrant of this graph describes a different assessment of a piece of information. Let’s walk through each:

  • Stale & Slow The lower left quadrant is the most boring quadrant. The information here is not relevant and isn’t fresh, but who cares? It’s low signal information, and it’s stale, so there is no need to act.
  • Voluminous Spam The lower right quadrant is less annoying. You’re still dealing with less critical information, but the more you move to the right, the fresher the information. I’m sure learning lots of useless things quickly. At an extreme, it’s spam. An organization spends energy moving information hither and fro. If you’re seeing a lot of information falling into this quadrant I am concerned about the overall efficiency of your team. If you’re seeing a lot of useless information on a day to day basis, what about the rest of your team? How much time is the team wading through the noise to find signal? How much time are they wasting looking for nuggets of relevancy?1
  • Critically Fresh The upper right quadrant is your informational sweet spot. Critical information is getting to you in a timely fashion. Yes, it’d be super if all the information was further up and to the right, but the fact the information is in this quadrant is a win. The vibe here is a distinct lack of surprises. When a piece of information lands on your plate, it’s fresh. It’s clear someone just made this horrible decision, and you have ample time to coach them in the correct direction.
  • Important, But Slow The final quadrant, the upper left, is the danger zone. Critical information arriving slowly to the humans who need it the most is the source of much of your organizational consternation, and I need a whole section to explain why.

No Surprises

Members Only was the code name of one of my managers from The Start-up You’ve Never Head Of, and he exhibited many classic management tropes. We didn’t know what he did all day, he never scheduled 1:1s and when they were scheduled they were often rescheduled into non-existence without notice, and when you finally got him pinned down in a meeting room, when you cornered him with the vital issue, he leaped to the first conclusion that crossed his mind and stated it as a fact.2

Members Only was fond of simple, pithy management proclamations which made a lasting impression on me. He told me one the first week he joined, “No surprises.”

My interpretation of these two words from Members Only was not generous. What I heard was, “Make sure I know what’s up, so I don’t look bad.” What he might have meant (but I’ll never know) was, “Make sure our team of humans has the best information as quickly as possible so they can make the best decisions as quickly as possible.”

Information consistently falling into Important, but Slow means there are surprises. You’re discovering unexpected developments occurring on the team long after they happened. You’re unable to react because the time to act has passed. The conclusion is already history.

You can spend a lot of time and money investing in processes, tools, and architects that you believe are necessary to critical and timely information flowing, but where I consistently invest is in the team. I demonstrate to the humans the value of effectively detecting, assessing, routing, and retransmitting information across the organization.

High Signal Humans

I have an internal measure which grades the following on any given day: how much critical information did I discover? And how fresh is it? In a rapidly growing organization of humans, the volume of new information created daily increases daily.

If you buy that the healthy flow of information is an essential practice as a leader, then you understand why I religiously hold 1:1s. It’s a regular meeting where I make it clear what critical information I care about and where I consistently share the critical information my team needs. It’s never a perfect transaction. I often incorrectly flag essential information that is spam, you will, too. Over time, we will calibrate. In time, we won’t wait until the 1:1 to relay information because we’ll intuitively understand that for this given piece of information, the faster it lands in the right hands, the higher the value.

Your ability to effectively lead is a function of the collective quality of the decisions you make on a daily basis. You can take your time on many decisions. You can wait days or weeks until you’ve gathered all the relevant signal necessary. Other decisions must be made right now. At that moment, the health of your signal network, the amount of critical information that has arrived in a timely fashion makes the difference between an informed decision and the flipping of a coin.

The health of your signal network is one lens into the health of your team. Critical information freely moving around the organization decreases surprises, improves the quality of decisions, and builds trust. They are your signal network. And you theirs.

  1. Gossip. Briefly. Some information that shows up is gossip. Its half-informed opinion relayed as fact. Gossip is a trigger for me because it’s often a precursor to the worst kind of politics, but gossip is signal. Rather than becoming angry, rather than wasting time on figuring out “Who would say that?”, I choose the dissect the gossip: What perfectly reasonable question is being asked with the inflammatory chunk of gossip? What observation is being made? This approach does not always work.  
  2. Much of the initial material for Managing Humans was created during this period.  

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