Nature abhors an information void

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No. 6: What do you want?
Voice: Information
No. 6:You won’t get it
Voice: By hook or by crook we will

Information… we all want information… Facebook updates, Tweets, 24-hour rolling news, the Donald Trump Big Brother House… the opening scenes and words of The Prisoner continue to echo, Patrick McGoohan and the other writers got it right, they were just 50 years early.

Human beings have insatiable thirst for information – even when we know rationally that information is useless is pointless we still want it. We persuade ourselves that something might be happening that we need to know about.

Just today I was driving when my mobile phone started to ring. It was highly unlikely to be anything but still my mind started to think of important things it could be. I had to stop the car and try to answer it. Of course, it was spam, a junk call, caller-ID told me that so I didn’t answer.

Every one of us has information weaknesses. In part it is dopamine addiction. We may look down on those who watch “vanity metrics” but we all information fetishes whether they be, metrics, scores, “facts” or celebrity gossip.

Whether e-mail, Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, SMS, Slack, some other medium or social media we all need information and a dopamine fi. Has only replied to my tweet? Has anyone retweeted my last tweet? Has anyone followed me today?

Sometimes it is impossible to believe that nobody has retweeted my fantastic tweet, or that a potential client hasn’t immediately replied to an e-mail, or that… I’ve even on occasions found myself picking up my phone and going to the mail app when I’ve only just walked away from answering e-mail on my PC – as if the e-mail on my phone is better than the e-mail on my PC!

The only thing worse than having a mailbox full of unanswered e-mails is an empty mailbox – mailbox zero – which stays empty.

Sometimes one demands information when there just isn’t any. I think that is what number 6 really meant when number 2 repeatedly asked him for information: there wasn’t anything more than he had said. He had given his information, if others demanded more then it was simply because they couldn’t accept what they had been told.

I’m sure all parents have experienced children in the back of the car who ask: “Are we there yet?”. To which you reply “No – it will be at least an hour”. And then, five minutes later you hear “Are we there yet?”

And who hasn’t felt the same way about project managers? Or technical leads? Or product managers? product owners? business analysts?

Children don’t stop asking because… well, maybe because they don’t understand the answer, they have a poor concept of time. Or maybe because they really want the answer to be “Yes we are there.” As small people children also want information.

Isn’t that the same when other people ask you the “Have you finished foo yet?” and even “When will it be ready?” While one hopes they have a better concept of time they don’t necessarily take in the answer, and they hope and hope and hope that the answer will soon be the answer they want it to be. People are very bad at handling information voids.

Manager types might dress the question up in terms of “The business needs to know” how often does that disguises the real truth: somebody didn’t like the last answer and is hoping that if the question is posed again the answer might be the one they want.

The project manager who checks in every few hours is no different than the developer who leaves their e-mail open on a second screen, or the tester keeps Twitter in the background. Each of them wants to know information!

Our difficult in dealing with information voids means we constantly search for information. And if we can’t find it we create pseudo-information: time based project plans which purport to show when something will be done or system architecture documents which claim to show how everything will work. Are the project managers and architects who create these documents are just seeking information? Dopamine?

Long time readers may remember my review of time-estimation research. Some of the research I read showed that people in positions of authority, or who claimed expert knowledge, underestimates how long work will take more than the people who do the work. Researchers were not clear as to whether this effect was because those in authority and experts let their desire for the end state influence their time estimation or whether it was because these people lacked an understanding of the work in detail and so ignored complications.

And it is not just time based information. Requirements documents are often an attempt to discern how a system may be used in future. System architecture designs are an attempt to second guess how the future may unfold. Unfortunately, as Peter Drucker said “We have no facts about the future”.

Faced with an information void we fill it with conjecture.

Sadly I also see occasions where the search for answers disables people. Sometimes people search for information and answers which are within their own power to give. Consider the product owner inundated with work requests for their product. They search for someone to tell them what they should do and what they should not do. Faced with an information void they look for answer from others. But sometimes – often? always? – the answer is within: as product owner they have the authority to decide what comes first and what is left undone.

I have become convinced over the years that often people ask for information that simply doesn’t exist. When the information isn’t presented they fill in the blanks themselves, they assume the information does exist and isn’t being shared. In some cases they create conspiracy theories or they accuse others of being secretive. But because of doubt they they don’t act on the information.

It is easy to think of examples in the public eye but I think it also happens inside organizations. Often times managers really don’t know what the future will hold but if they don’t tell people then they are seen as hiding something. If they deny information exists they may be seen as stupid or misleading.

The same happens the other way around, the self same managers – who really don’t know as much as people think they do – ask programmers, testers, analysts, etc. for information which doesn’t exist and which maybe unknowable. Telling your manager “you don’t know” might not be something you feel safe doing, and if you do then they may go and ask someone else.

In almost every organization I visit people tell me “We are not very good at communicating around here.” Again and again people tell me they are not told information they “should” be told. I’ve never visited an organization where people tell me “Communication is great around here” and while I’ve visited places where people say “We have lots of pointless meetings” nobody tells me “We are told too much.”

My working assumption in these cases is simply: The information doesn’t exist.

This is Occam’s razor logic, it is conspiracy free, it doesn’t assume the worst of people. I don’t assume people are keeping information secret – either deliberately or through naive understandings of what other people want.

So, the real answer for No. 6 should be “I’ve told you the truth, maybe you can’t accept it.”

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