What's relevant when drving?

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We live in a world that is profoundly complex, both in detail and dynamics. Because of the resulting data overload, we have to constantly ask ourselves, “What’s relevant?” In order to simply operate, we have to learn how to filter out most of the inputs and information that’s presented to us. But if you filter out the wrong inputs or information, you end up with disaster. So, what’s relevant? And how do you know the difference?

Do you remember what it was like to learn to drive? The first time you were behind the wheel, you probably had to think through each step of starting the car. And how many of you forgot to release the emergency brake? When I was teaching my children to drive I forced them to learn on a stick shift – yes, there was a lot of gear grinding, but they quickly learned to shift gears while also focusing on the relevant needs of watching traffic, making signals, keeping within the speed limit, etc. Today they are accomplished drivers on any vehicle.

I use the example of learning to drive because it universally illustrates a common phenomenon – humans quickly learn how to operate within an environment by “offloading” a lot of our input analysis onto our subconscious – we learn to drive without thinking about the thousands of decisions that have to be made when driving and focusing only on the relevant decisions – where to turn; speed up or down; hit the brakes, etc.. At the same time it makes it possible for us to operate a vehicle without a lot of attention but it also results in accidents because we are not attentive to what’s relevant.

The Problem

The problem comes in being able to identify when we need to focus our attention on the relevant and when we can operate on “auto-pilot.” Because, as I mentioned in Lesson #1 of the 11 Leadership Lessons from Godzilla, when a problem first appears, it doesn’t look like a problem. Driving your vehicle through a stop sign comes from not recognizing the relevant stop sign. T-boning another car is the result.

I teach a graduate course that puts students in the role of managing an electronics company with 5 products initially. They have to make decisions about production, R&D, marketing, sales, issuing stocks, taking and paying off loans – in short, all the decisions that are expected of a modern CEO. The situation they are placed in is complex in both quantity and quality of variables they have to manage – and everything seems to be relevant. But there are lots of resources to help the student understand what and how to do the simulation – YouTube videos by the thousands, printed material, and even me.

The early results are not pretty. Like first-time drivers, my students focus on the details of creating the simulation inputs and usually end up destroying their “company” because they miss relevant details. Eventually, most of them learn to consider what’s happening in the simulation – what’s relevant – and then make decisions that help them succeed. For example, R&D can be applied to each product to try to keep it near what the customers want – except the Low-cost product which can never be brought close to what the customer wants. The low-cost product has to be exploited as long as possible then allowed to die and be replaced by another product or that segment abandoned. But my students almost never recognize the situation even though it’s presented in both numbers and graphically because they don’t understand what’s relevant. It provides a teaching moment for me.

The solution is experience – the more driving you do, generally the better you learn to drive. And the same applies to everything else.

The Peter Principle

But consider what we do in our organizations. Imagine a person working on the assembly line or at the reception desk – any entry level position. This person tries hard to learn how to perform their job with excellence and they do. Then what do we do? We promote them. New position, new responsibilities, and new skills and knowledge to learn. In short, we are constantly placing people in situations where they will be incompetent. Laurence J. Peter coined the term (and penned the book) The Peter Principle to explain this.

This phenomenon is illustrated by the following Dilbertism is from an unknown person:

Definition: ADMINISHPERE – The rarefied organizational layers beginning just above the rank and file. Decisions that fall from the adminisphere are often profoundly inappropriate or irrelevant to the problems they were designed to solve.

The Relevant Solution

So, what’s the solution to knowing what’s relevant? In driving, it’s experience; it’s removing the distractions that require active decision making – Are you texting? – it’s providing assistance to draw attention to what’s relevant – auto-braking systems, warning systems, etc. In business, it’s finding assistance from

  • Listening to people smarter than you
    • Your employees
    • Specialists (lawyers, accountants, experts)
    • Your customers
  • Gaining experience through
    • Actually doing
    • Gaming (what if situations)

As the old saying goes, Problems are prevented by experience and experience comes from problems.

How do you know what’s relevant?

A physicist by trade, author by choice, a born teacher, a retired veteran, and an adamant problem solver, Frank has helped the White House, federal agencies, military offices, historical museums, manufacturers, and over 250 technology startups get stuff done, communicate effectively, and find practical solutions that work for them. In his spare time, he makes sawdust and watches Godzilla movies.