Information Is Inspiration
Effective information gathering is the most basic perspective-widening tool an effective leader requires.
Good quality information marks out the context in which the leader operates, creates the information patterns from which ideas emerge, and provides the criteria by which ideas are screened and assessed.
Effective leaders gather two main types of information:
- Background Data.
- Task-Related Data.
Leaders gather background data to build their view of the world in which they operate.
This information is made up of the countless facts, trends and opinions that they encounter and the observations they make on a daily basis. The higher the quality of background data they gather and the more effectively they prioritize it, the more accurate their view of the world will be, and the better their judgment and "common sense".
In contrast with the steady, slow gathering of background data, task-related information is gathered for a specific purpose.
Perhaps you're preparing a five-year business plan and you want a reliable growth forecast from your country's central bank. Or maybe you want specific information about the number and disposable incomes of a certain group of consumers. Or perhaps you need to know projected labor market trends for people with a key skill on which you depend.
Gathering Background Information
What is certain, however, is that task-related information on its own is not enough: while arguments created with it can be persuasive, they are "brittle" and can often be knocked down with previously unknown facts that just don't fit. This is where ideas need to be tested with the common sense that comes with diligently acquired background information.
There are a number of things you can do to build background information:
- Read a newspaper or news website respected for the quality and accuracy of its journalism (for example, "The Economist").
- Where possible, talk to your customers and get a deep understanding of what they want and don't want from you, and what they're getting or not getting from you and your competitors.
- Read industry magazines and newsletters for both your own and your customers' industries, keeping an eye on customers, competitors, suppliers, industry associations, activist groups, new technologies and so on.
- Talk to experts in the fields in which you operate and knowledgeable people within your organization, and understand their perspectives on the key trends and features of interest.
- Read brochures and talk to product teams to make sure you understand your organization's products and services, their strengths and weaknesses, and what your customers like or dislike about them.
- Have a good understanding of the company or business unit strategy – in other words, what your company says it wants to do, who it wants its customers to be, and how it plans to serve them.
- Take the time to "tune in" to what's going on in your organization: through both the formal and informal "grapevines".
What is necessary here is to take the time to gather this information: it's all too easy for these activities to be lost under the pressures of a hectic schedule.
Gathering Task-Related Information
It's much easier to justify the time spent gathering task-related information: information-gathering actions are clearly identified steps in the projects you undertake.
There are three key factors here:
- Understanding how much research you should do.
- Making sure you ask the right questions.
- Gathering the information you need.
The amount of research you do depends on the scale of the decision, the time available, and the consequences of getting it wrong. If it's a small decision, or the consequences of getting it wrong are small, then don't waste too much time on it. On the other hand, if the consequences are severe, take time to make a good decision, and ensure that you make an appropriate risk management plan in case things don't work out.
Making sure you ask the right questions is of key importance. Start by brainstorming these questions, ideally with your boss or client, or with experts in the field or within your organization. Then make sure you draw on any predefined frameworks you can find, where people have tried to make a system or process for solving this type of problem. For example, if you're gathering information as part of researching a business plan, then buy a good book on business planning from Amazon.com and adapt the framework it proposes for your own use.
Finally, make a plan for gathering the key information needed, and think about how much you're prepared to spend to get it.
A lot of information is freely available, within your organization or in good business, academic or institutional libraries. Some information is packaged and available to purchase (for example, detailed competitor financial reports). Other information you may need to gather yourself, for example by interviewing clients or conducting market research surveys. And in other cases (for example, in taking legal advice) it makes sense to pay a qualified expert to answer your questions.
And at the end of all this research, make sure you take a step back and look at the answers you've gained through the filter of common sense. Ask yourself if any information seems to be missing, or if anything you've uncovered jars with your instincts and experience.
Finally, while information gathering is an essential skill for an effective leader, bear in mind that the information is not an end in itself. It is useful because it serves as an input towards generating ideas and building vision.