Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Discerning Relevance

I had a great conversation today about Black Swans.

I haven't read the book, though it is now on my reading list.

There are events that are a rare occurence in your life. These are game-changers, and they're as rare as the fabled black swan. Events in this category would be Sept. 11, a world war, a collapse of financial markets, and with any luck, the election of Obama. I think that's the point of the book and its title.

But I also think there's a deeper hierarchy of important things. Unfortunately most of the time, we are ignoring this hierarchy in favour of the easy path of just being "busy". We simply try and deal with all of it instead of filtering and sorting.

There's the stuff that isn't quite so rare, but is still pretty big. Let's say these things happen a few times in a decade. A university degree, a significant shift in what you do, a severance package, a big promotion.

We go down the scale, and there's the significant events that happen a few times a year. The hiring of an employee, a re-organization announcement, an unexpected reaquaintance with a lost friend.

We can keep going. There's events that are of the significance that we see occuring monthly, weekly, daily or hourly. This spectrum of different-sized events goes from the Black Swan moment all the way down to the 40-a-day "reply all" emails.

The thing is, there may not be a lot of cues to tell you which event is big and which one is small. Regardless of size, they can all come to us on the same old information-overload train.

How appropriate is our response to the big events? The medium ones? The small ones? When we're under constant attack from new information, our filter gets skewed. We start over-reacting to the small stuff and under-reacting to the big stuff. Personally, I'd appreciate a "recommended appropriate response level" attached to each message. Alas, I think that's what our brains and free will are for.

Peter Drucker wrote "The Effective Executive" in 1967. He defined everyone that is having to make choices based on information as an "executive." "Effective," you could say, are the ones among us who can summon an appropriate response to events, be it appropriately large OR appropriately small. Effective people put their time and energy where it matters.

That effort is rarely devoted to the most recent email. In the hierarchy of priorities, what's the likelihood that the latest is also the most important?

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