25 ways to make yourself unpopular: #4 Provide too much information

Too much information is such a ubiquitous problem that it even has its own three letter abbreviation: TMI – although that is usually applied in the context of someone online telling you something that you really didn’t want to know. However, it’s also a problem experienced by anyone who runs a team, or who requires information in order to take a decision.

What often happens is as follows. The decision-maker asks for information. The person being asked isn’t sure what is the most relevant part of the information he has, or else doesn’t wish to be accused of providing too little information, thereby leading to an incorrect or inadvisable decision. (This may indicate that they don’t fully understand the information they have, or the issue to which it relates.)

I recall that when I arrived on my first day at one job, someone in my team told me I needed to make a decision about the website: the team responsible had been waiting for me to start, and now the matter was urgent. To help me make my decision, the team member provided me with two bulging folders of documentation, and forwarded on to me dozens of emails. Given that this was just one of several issues that had been allowed to become urgent, and that I couldn’t see the wood for the trees, I asked him if he could summarise the issues, together with his recommendations and the reasons for them, on one side of A4 paper. He did. In fact, the exercise was so successful that we adopted the same approach to every issue.

OK, maybe this is taking the idea of a summary too far...

I thought I  was doing well, but my line manager’s line manager would not read anything at all unless it was no more than 6 bullet points long, and wouldn’t listen unless it could be summarised in 5 minutes.

The same principle is adopted in business networking meetings and (so I’ve heard) at speed-dating events.

The important thing is that the larger body of information has to be available in case the person asking for the information wants to see where a particular bullet point has originated. There can be no suggestion that the side of A4 or half a dozen bullet points is the full extent of the information available.

In providing the summary, the following questions need to be asked:

  1. What decision needs to be taken?
  2. Is this point relevant to that decision?
  3. If the answer to #2 is “yes”, is it absolutely crucial for the decision?

If the answer to question 2 or 3 is “no”, then leave it out. In fact, the old grammatical rule applies here: “If in doubt, leave it out.”

Knowing exactly how much information is too little or too much is extremely difficult. I’ve had some clients who want to know everything; I’ve had others who want only the five minute summary. Unless you’re psychic you have no way of knowing, so the approach I adopt is as follows:

  1. Ask whether they want the full information or a summary version.
  2. Whatever their answer to #1, I compile both, but give them only the version they asked for. The other one I keep for that day when they or someone else decide(s) they need to either revisit the decision (full information needed) or let others know what led to it (summary needed).

Regardless of whether or not you would want to bother with #2, you can’t go far wrong by adopting the advice given in #1: always ask the client, Principal, teacher, Governor, parent or whoever the decision-maker happens to be, “How much information would you like me to provide?”