What We Get Wrong About Information When Deciding

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On the 9th of August 1940, Winston Churchill issued a memo to the government. Its title was a simple one and featured one word; brevity.

Winston explains the war cabinet has to read a mass of papers. Nearly all were far too long. He highlighted the time it wasted, and the energy it took to seek out the essential points. For the reader, the value of using brevity is clear in Winston’s final sentence; “…the saving in time will be great, while the discipline of setting out the real points concisely will prove an aid to clearer thinking.”

We process information like civil servants wrote reports before the brevity memo.

The real points get lost as we commit a cardinal sin. We focus on how we process the information, rather than what the information is. It is the one thing we get wrong about information when deciding.

We get trapped in the how not the what.

It is an easy mistake to make. When we make decisions, error’s come from focusing on what the decision means. We forget how we should decide. This leaves us more likely to act impulsively, which often leads to regret.

Information tends to come on mass. The internet fashions us with a glut of noise, most of which Churchill would describe as woolly phrases that add mere padding. When it comes to making decisions, getting clarity is vital. But, rather than apply some brevity to the noise, we look towards a metagame for help.

The Metagame of Decision-Making

In basketball, the focus isn’t on winning the game, it’s scoring more three-pointers than your opponent. In football, attention rests on playing a coordinated high defensive line. Executed well, attackers fall offside more frequently reducing the opponent's attacking opportunities. In start-ups, the focus is on the speed of iteration, not on making the business successful. The approach is to test, learn, adapt, and retest towards a tipping point where growth happens.

These are examples of games within games—metagames.

Understandably, if you win the metagame, you win the overall game. It’s like playing snakes and ladders with a ladder straight to the winning square. It overcomes the risks of playing the game the same way as everyone else.

Decision-making is no different.  It isn’t about decision-making, but the decisions within the decision.

Frameworks, mental models, razors, and so on—are examples of decisions within a decision. In the battle to ‘win’, we seek ways to make decisions quicker. It is the game within a game—how can I decide quicker than my competitor? Where can I see patterns that others don’t? How can I outthink the opposition?

The metagame sounds like a win/win, but it is also a distraction.

Distraction from What Matters

There is an industry of confusion that lies in waiting for you.

I’m ashamed to admit it, but I’m an agent for this confusion too. The industry is the self-development sector. The books. The websites. The Twitter accounts. The Instagram influencers. There are so many all offering varying levels of insight and confusion. In our efforts to outflank the competition, we look for ways to cheat—and it’s hard to cheat a good decision.

The big problem is we think the metagame—the way we process information when deciding—matters more than the information itself. And so our attention drifts towards the endless Twitter threads, or the self-help books describing frameworks or mental models. We become consumed with the wisdom of others in the hope we can gain an advantage.

In our efforts to learn the frameworks, the mental models, and the razors, we lose sight of what we know and what we don’t know. Yes, these tools can be helpful. As George Box famously said, “all models are wrong, but some are useful.” I use his point to re-enforce my own. Models are a distraction.

Don’t get sucked into the metagame.

Not yet anyway. Besides, in a world of increasing complexity, taking away, or stripping back the noise will reveal what’s important.

Don’t Get This Wrong About Information

It is the facts that matter.

That’s the point Churchill was making with his Brevity memo. Forget the fluff, the padding and the array of ways to look for patterns. To begin making a decision, you need to know the facts.

You need to find the truth.

Focus on finding the real points and grasping them concisely is a pathway to clearer thinking. When it comes to making decisions, this is the most important lesson I can offer. The information you have will need cleansing. Some of it will be truthful, but most of it won’t.

You will have to think like a detective. Information is rarely static. It moves, changes, and evolves with the progression of time. Your job is to assess the information you have. You need to work out what you know to be true. From truth comes stability.

Equally, you need to recognise when information is incomplete.

There are few better ways to do this than to apply some brevity to the information. Removing the fluff, the opinions, and the bias of the provider all take you closer to the truth.

This is my lesson; focus on the information, not on how you process it.

Photo by AbsolutVisionon Unsplash

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