It’s critical for public leaders to take the time to distinguish the signal from the noise.
In today’s world of 24/7 news cycles, endless “BREAKING NEWS!” alerts, viral conspiracy theories and constant charges of “fake news,” it’s hard to know what’s real and what isn’t. Statisticians have terms for this dilemma. They talk about “signal” and “noise.” “Signal” is information that’s accurate and relevant. “Noise” is everything else. It’s rumors, gossip and deliberate disinformation, as well as accurate information that’s not of use for the issue you’re addressing.
Separating signal from noise is increasingly difficult. It’s also a critical part of managers’ and leaders’ jobs — no more so than in the public sector, where failure to separate signal from noise can even threaten public safety. Case in point:
At approximately 3 p.m. on April 15, 2013, just minutes after the Boston Marathon bombings, a report started circulating that another explosion had occurred, at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library just a few miles from the site of the Marathon explosions. Soon, the Boston Police Department started circulating reports to the media that the library had been damaged by an explosion that may or may not have been related to the earlier bombings. At a 3:50 p.m. press conference, the police chief said that he didn’t know if the two events were related but that “we are treating them as if they are.”
It turns out there was no explosion. A fire had broken out in one part of the library building, and it had been quickly extinguished. But the police didn’t acknowledge it as a fire until two and a half hours after the first reports of an explosion, despite the fact that staff at the library had simply reported a fire.
You might be wondering, so what? The original report was overstated. No big deal. It’s a fair question. The answer is, the time and effort that the police invested in checking into the library “explosion” was time and effort that wasn’t available to track down the perpetrators of the Marathon bombing.
In other words, there are real costs when managers mistake noise for signal. And there’s an awful lot of noise out there today, especially on the Internet.
What to do?
We can take a lesson from Tony Bennett, the coach of the University of Virginia men’s basketball team and one of the most successful basketball coaches in the country in recent years. One reason for his success: Unlike many coaches, he puts a premium on listening, not just talking.
Consider, for instance, what happens when there’s a time-out on the court. Bennett spends most of the two or three minutes listening as his assistant coaches describe what they’ve observed. In this photo, Bennett is in the circle on the right with hands on his hips, surrounded by his assistants.
Then, with perhaps 30 seconds left in the time-out, Bennett sits down in front of his players and gives them a few things to do differently when play resumes:
Asked why he maintains this routine, he explains that, like his father (who also coached basketball), he used to lose his temper during times of stress. But he didn’t like blowing up at the players. So he created this simple structure during time-outs to avoid responding in the heat of the moment: Listen to his assistants, gather his thoughts, cool down and then engage the players. Everyone benefits — the assistant coaches as well as the players, who have time to think and talk together before their head coach weighs in.
Tony Bennett is following an idea long preached by another legendary men’s basketball coach, UCLA’s John Wooden: “Be quick, but don’t hurry.” Bennett quickly gathers information and various perspectives from his assistants, but he doesn’t hurry his decision (what to convey to his players). Public leaders and managers should take a page from Wooden’s playbook:
- Be quick. Quick to meet with people whose judgment you trust. Quick to decide what information you need to determine whether an apparent problem or opportunity is important to investigate. Quick to assess the credibility of the people presenting the information.
- But don’t hurry. By quickly taking the steps listed above, you won’t be forced to hurry where it counts the most: deciding and acting.
The environment in which public-sector managers operate today is filled with noise of every kind. Public employees are often distracted and rattled by the noise that passes for news: rumors of another downsizing, talk of “churn at the top,” worries about next year’s budget. Managers can help their employees focus on the important signals — valid information that’s relevant to their mission — by following Tony Bennett’s and John Wooden’s lead. Be quick … so that you don’t have to hurry.