Improving the Signal to Noise Ratio

Ellen Fishbein asks, “Why NOT be an information sponge?” In the Age of Information, I think her answer is a good one: “I currently believe that each of us must move away from the ‘information sponge’ mindset and try to develop a more nuanced relationship with information.”

I’d have to characterize myself as more of an information amoeba – (IIRC, the amoeba is, by weight, the most vicious life form on earth) – on the hunt for information and after internalizing it, going into rest mode while I decompose and reassemble it into something of use to my understanding of the world. Yum.

More generally, to be an effective and successful consumer of information these days, the Way of the Sponge (WotS, passive, information washes through them and they absorb everything) is no longer tenable and the Way of the Amoeba (WotA, active, information washes over them and they hunt down what they need) is likely to be the more successful strategy. The WotA requires considerable energy but the rewards are commensurate with the effort. WotS…well, there’s your obsessive processed food eating TV binge-watcher right there. Mr. Square Bob Sponge Pants.

What’s implied by the WotA vs the WotS is that the former has a more active role in optimizing the informational signal to noise ratio than the latter. So a few thoughts to begin with on signals and noise.

Depending on the moment and the context, one person’s signal is another person’s noise. Across the moments that make up a lifetime, one person’s noise may become the same person’s signal and vice versa. When I was in high school, I found Frank Sinatra’s voice annoying and not something to be mingled with my collection of Mozart, Bach, and Vivaldi. Today…well, to disparage the Chairman of the Board is fightin’ words in my house. Over time, at least, noise can become signal and signal become noise.

But I’m speaking here of the signal quality and not it’s quantity (i.e. volume)

Some years ago I came across Stuart Kauffman’s idea of the adjacent possible:

It may be that biospheres, as a secular trend, maximize the rate of exploration of the adjacent possible. If they did it too fast, they would destroy their own internal organization, so there may be internal gating mechanisms. This is why I call this an average secular trend, since they explore the adjacent possible as fast as they can get away with it.

This has been interpreted in a variety of ways. I carry this around in my head as a distillation from several of the more faithful versions: Expand the edge of what I know by studying the things that are close by. Over time, there is an accumulation of loosely coupled ideas and facts that begin to coalesce into a deeper meaning, a signal, if you will, relevant to my life.

With this insight, I’ve been able to be more deliberate and directed about what I want or need to know. I’ve learned to be a good custodian of the edge and what I allow to occupy space on that edge. These are my “internal gating mechanisms.” It isn’t an easy task, but there are some easy wins. For starters, learning to unplug completely. Especially from social media and what tragically passes for “news reporting” or “journalism”these days.

The task is largely one of filtering. I very rarely directly visit information sources. Rather, I leverage RSS feeds and employ filtering rules. I pull information of interest rather than have it pushed at me by “news” web sites, cable or TV channels, or newspapers. While this means I will occasionally miss some cool stuff, it’s more than compensated by the boost in signal quality achieved by excluding all the sludge from the edge. I suspect I still get the cool stuff, just in a slightly different form or revealed by a different source that makes it through the filter. In this way, it’s a matter of modulating the quantity such that the signal is easier to find.

There is a caution to consider while optimizing a signal-to-noise ratio, something reflected in Kauffman’s comments around the rate of exploration for new ideas: “If they did it too fast, they would destroy their own internal organization…”

Before the Internet, before PCs were a commodity, before television was popular it was much, much easier to find time to think. In fact, it was never something that had to be looked for or sought out. I think that’s what is different today. It takes WORK to find a quiet space and time to think. While my humble little RSS filters do a great job of keeping a high signal-to-noise ratio with all things Internet, accomplishing the same thing in the physical world is becoming more and more difficult.

The “attention economy,” or whatever it’s being called today, is reaching a truly disturbing level of invasion. It seems I’ve used more electrician’s tape to cover up camera lenses and microphones in the past year than I’ve used on actual electrical wires. The number of appliances and gadgets in the home with glowing screens crying out for bluetooth or wifi access like leaches seeking blood are their own source of noise. This is my current battleground for finding the signal within the noise.

Enough about filtering. What about boundaries. Fences make for good neighbors, said someone wise and experienced. And there’s a good chance that applies to information organization, too. Keeping the spiritual information in my head separate from my shopping list probably helps me stop short of forming some sort of cult around Costco. ( “All praise ‘Bulk,’ the God of Stuff!)

An amoeba has a much more develop boundary between self and other than a sponge and that’s probably a net gain even with the drawback of extra energy required to fuel that arrangement. Intellectually, we have our beliefs and values that mark where those edges between self and other are defined.

So I’ll stop for now with the question, “What are the strategies and mental models that promote permeability for desired or needed information while keeping, as much as possible, the garbage ‘out there?’”


Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay

Friends, Guides, Coaches, and Mentors

The “conscious competence” model for learning is fairly well known. If not explicitly, than at least implicitly. Most people can recognize when someone is operating at a level of unconscious incompetence even if they can’t quite put their finger on why it is such a person makes the decisions they do. Recognizing when we ourselves are at the level of unconscious incompetence is a bit more problematic.

A robust suite of cognitive biases that normally help us navigate an increasingly complex world seem to conspire against us and keep us in the dark about our own shortcomings and weaknesses. Confirmation bias, selective perception, the observer bias, the availability heuristic, the Ostrich effect, the spotlight effect and many others all help us zero in on the shiny objects that confirm and support our existing memories and beliefs. Each of these tissue-thin cognitive biases layer up to form a dense curtain, perhaps even an impenetrable wall, between the feedback the world is sending and our ability to receive the information.

There is a direct relationship between the density of the barrier and the amount of energy needed to drive the feedback through the barrier. People who are introspective as well as receptive to external feedback generally do quite well when seeking to improve their competencies. For those with a dense barrier it may require an intense experience to deliver the message that there are things about themselves that need to change. For some a poorly received business presentation may be enough to send them on their way to finding out how to do better next time. For others it may take being passed over for a promotion. Still others may not get the message until they’ve been fired from their job.

However it happens, if you’ve received the message that there are some changes you’d like to make in your life and it’s time to do the work, an important question to ask yourself is “Am I searching for something or am I lost?”

If you are searching for something, the answer may be found in a conversation over coffee with a friend or peer who has demonstrated they know what you want to know. It may be that what you’re looking for – improve your presentation skills, for example – requires a deeper dive into a set of skills and it makes sense to find a guide to help you. Perhaps this involves taking a class or hiring a tutor.

If you are lost you’ll want to find someone with a much deeper set of skills, experience, and wisdom. A first time promotion into a management position is a frequent event that either exposes someone’s unconscious incompetence (i.e. the Peter Principle) or challenges someone to double their efforts at acquiring the skills to successfully manage people. Finding a coach or a mentor is the better approach to developing the necessary competencies for success when the stakes are higher and the consequences when failing are greater.

A couple of examples may help.

When I was first learning to program PCs I read many programming books cover to cover. It was a new world for me and I had very little sense of the terrain or what I was really interested in doing. So I studied everything. Over time I became more selective of the books I bought or read. Eventually, I stopped buying books altogether because there was often just a single chapter of interest. By the time I concluded my software development career, it had been many years since I last picked up a software development book. This was a progression from being lost at the start – when I needed coaches and mentors in the form of books and experienced software developers – to needing simple guidance from articles and peers and eventually to needing little more than a hint or two for the majority of my software development career.

A more recent example is an emergent need to learn photography – something I don’t particular enjoy. Yet for pragmatic reasons, it’s become worth my time to learn how to take a particular kind of photograph. I needed a coach or a mentor because this was entirely new territory for me. So I hired a professional photographer with an established reputation for taking the type of photograph I’m interesting in. My photography coach is teaching me what I need to know. (He is teaching me how to fish, in other words, rather then me paying him for a fish every time I need one.)

Unlike the experience of learning how to program – where I really didn’t know what I wanted to do – my goal with photography is very specific. The difference had a significant influence on who I choose as guides and mentors. For software development, I sought out everyone and anyone who knew more than I. For photography, I sought a very specific set of skills. I didn’t want to sit through hours of classes learning how to take pictures of barn owls 1,000 meters away in the dark. I didn’t want to suffer through a droning lecture on the history of camera shutters. Except in a very roundabout way, none of this serves my goal for learning how to use a camera for a very specific purpose.

Depending on what type of learner you are, working with a mentor who really, really knows their craft about a specific subject you want to learn can be immensely more satisfying and enjoyable. Also, less expensive and time consuming. If it expands into something more, than great. With this approach you will have the opportunity to discover a greater interest without a lot of upfront investment in time and money.

Root Causes

The sage business guru Willie Sutton might answer the question “Why must we work so hard at digging to finding the causes to our problems?” by observing “Because that’s where the roots are.”
Digging to find root causes is hard work. They’re are rarely obvious and there’s never just one. Occasionally, you might get lucky and trip over an obvious root cause (obvious once you’ve tripped over it.) Most often, it’ll require some unknown amount of exploration and experimentation.

Even so, I’ve watch as people work very hard to avoid the hard work needed to find root causes or fail to acknowledge them even when they are wrapped around their ankles. It’s an odd form of bikeshedding whereby the seemingly obvious major issues are ignored in favor of issues that are much easier to identify, explain, or understand.

One thing is certain, you’ll know you’ve found a root cause when one of two things happen: You implement a change meant to correct the issue and a whole lot of other things get fixed as a result or there is noisy and aggressive resistance to change.

Poor morale, for example, is often a presenting symptom mistaken for a root cause. The inexperienced (or lazy) will throw fixes at poor morale like money, happy hours, or other trinkets. These work in the very short term and have their place in a manager’s toolbox, but eventually more money becomes the new low pay and more alcohol has it’s own very steep downside.

Morale is best understood as a signal for measuring the health of the underlying system. Poor morale is a signal that a whole lot of things are going wrong and that they’ve been going wrong for an extended period of time. By leveraging a system dynamics approach, it’s relatively easy to make some educated guesses about where the root causes may be. That’s the easy part.

The hard work lies with figuring out what interventions to implement and determining how to measure whether or not the changes are having the desired effect. A positive shift in morale would certainly be one of the indicators. But since it is a lagging indicator on the scale of months, it would be important to include several other measures that are more closely associated with the selected interventions.

There are other systemic symptoms that are relatively easy to identify and track. Workforce turnover, rework, and delays in delivery of high dependency work products are just a couple of examples. Each of these would suggest a different approach needed to resolve the underlying issues and restore balance to the system dynamics behind a team or organization’s performance.

Busting Assumptions

The video in this post is one I show when talking about the need to question assumptions while working to integrate Agile principles and practices into an organization. It was taken with the dash camera in my car. The drama seems to make it easier for people to see the different points of view and associated assumptions in play. (The embedded video is a lower resolution, adapted for the web, but it still shows most of what I wish to point out.)

First off, no one was injured in this event beyond a few sets of rattled nerves, including mine. Even though this happened fast, there were signals that immediately preceded the event which suggested something strange was about to happen. The key moment is replayed at the end of the video at 1/4 speed for a second chance to notice what happened.

  1. The truck ahead of me was slowing down. Unusual behavior when the expectation is that traffic would be flowing.
  2. The driver in the truck was signaling that they intended to move to the left, either to switch lanes or turn left.
  3. This activity was happening as we approached an intersection.

Something didn’t seem right to me so I had started to slow down. That’s why it looks like the driver of the Jeep appears to be speeding up.

So what are some of the assumptions that were probably in play?

An important piece of information is that the road in the video is a two lane one way street. The driver of the Jeep clearly understood this and assumed everyone else on the road would be following the rules of the road. The driver of the truck appears to be assuming he is driving on a two lane two way street and so prepared to turn left onto a side street. His signaling and subsequent behavior suggest this. So the driver of the truck was assuming everyone else on the road was operating under this incorrect understanding. So when he began his left hand turn he wasn’t expecting the need to check the left hand lane for cars coming up from behind him. One second difference, literally, in the timing and this could have ended badly for several people.

Assumptions are unconscious and everyone has them. By design they never represent the full picture. Yet we almost always act as if they do and, more importantly, that they are shared by everyone around us. Events like those in the video clearly demonstrate that is not the case. If it was, there would be far fewer road accidents.

Organizations that are seeking to implement Agile principles and practices are guaranteed to be operating under a mountain of assumptions for how work can or “should” be done. They’re easy to spot based on how strongly people react when someone fails to follow the rules. It’s important to examine these assumptions so they can be either validated, updated, or retired. If we don’t do the work to identify and understand the assumptions driving our work processes we will usually be made aware of them when some crisis occurs. Where’s the fun in that?


Photo by Jaroslav Devia on Unsplash

The Novice and the Master

When coaching people in a new skill, there are several things I watch for in their development from novice to master. Insuring they have the requisite foundational knowledge can be considered a given. Tightly coupled with this is a demonstration of working from first principles. If neither of these are in place than it can be said the learner has yet to begin their journey toward mastery.

Beyond the basics, I look for signs of what’s happening behind the curtain. I watch for how they respond to challenges and conflict. And how they work through difficult decisions.

How a difficult decision is handled is an important indicator for whether an individual is a novice, a master, or somewhere in between. Where novices struggle trying to figure out what to do, masters resolve quickly. Certainly a common issue in play would be doubts about the outcome of any particular action and the probability of recovering from any associated consequences. It is also possible that the issue – either instead of or in addition to – is that the novice has become stuck at a decision node that has an uncomfortable degree of uncertainty associated with it on the front end and they are unskilled at thinking through the “disjunction,” as Eldar Shafir1 calls situations like this.

With the former issue, the tack taken by the novice is to plan out as many details as possible so as to account for every contingency and squeeze out as much doubt as possible regarding the outcome. In the later, the novice simply doesn’t have the information needed to make the decision and lacks the skill to play out n number of scenarios leading up to the decision node such that they can then evaluate subsequent paths.

An example given by Shafir has to do with a student that has just taken a rather important exam (say, for graduate school) but doesn’t yet know the results. If they’ve passed, they move forward. If they’ve failed, they have to retake the exam in a couple of months after the end-of-year holidays. On the same day, they are presented with a incredibly sweet deal for a 5-day Hawaiian vacation over the end-of-year holidays. The vacation deal is good for today and grades won’t be released until tomorrow. What does the student do?

Notice that the outcome of the exam will be known long before the vacation begins. Thus, the uncertainty characterizes the present, disjunctive situation, not the eventual vacation. Additional, related versions were presented in which subjects were to assume that they had passed the exam, or that they had failed, before they had to decide about the vacation. We discovered that many subjects who would have bought the vacation to Hawaii if they were to pass the exam and if they were to fail, chose not to buy the vacation when the exam’s outcome was not known. The data show that more than half of the students chose the vacation package when they knew that they passed the exam and an even larger percentage chose the vacation when they knew they they failed. However, when they did not know whether they had passed or failed, less than one-third of the students chose the vacation and the majority (61%) were willing to pay $5 to postpone the decision until the following day, when the results of the exam would be known.

A solution to this simple example of disjunction (Shafir provides many other examples) is for the student to ask themselves two questions:

  1. “Would I take this vacation deal if I passed?”
  2. “Would I take this vacation deal if I failed?”

If the answer is “Yes” to both or “No” to both, then the decision about the vacation deal is easy. If the answer is still mixed, then I suppose the student will have to dig a bit deeper to get at a level of leading criteria that will shake out the decision. (When I was a student, I would have had to consult my financial adviser – a.k.a. my wallet – first. The answer to everything beyond beer was “NO!”) In the experiment described above where students remained uninformed as to the outcome of the exam, they didn’t have a skill or strategy for resolving the uncertainty and were even willing to pay to make it go away!

Shafir’s work was instrumental in helping me tap into new skills for developing mastery in several areas of interest (specifically, martial arts and woodworking). Disjunction has a distinct visceral sensation for me. It gives me pause to ask questions not about potential future events, but about past events leading up to the present. I find I’m usually missing something about the history of events that either help sort out the indecision once known or cause me to think through better scenarios on emerging events that will influence the decision I’m trying to make.

References

1 Eldar Shafir’s chapter in “Cognition on Cognition” titled “Uncertainty and the difficulty of thinking through disjunctions”

Photo by Motoki Tonn on Unsplash