Technology startups and political campaigns are roughly the same thing: smart, driven people get together to make something that they think is useful happen for the world.
Chances are that the campaign staffers for Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney, and Barack Obama all share that same frazzled look of spening a late night working hard to get a release out. It’s roughly the same thing.
The problem is, both of these work environments yield delusion.
When I was Howard Dean’s lead programmer in 2004, we all feasted on an information diet of news clips about Howard Dean, then wrote and read blog posts about Howard Dean in the afternoon, and watched the West Wing — which we thought was a documentary about Dean’s future presidency — in the evening. And while it was helpful for morale, it wasn’t useful for decisionmaking. After all, when our pollster came out and said Kerry would win Iowa two weeks before the caucuses, we were all taken by surprise.
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A deliberate information diet would have been helpful, and I think such a diet needs to be a necessary part of a startup’s culture.
Now, I don’t mean that your startup needs to go and start planning out a prescribed reading list of things for employees to consume — and dicta that employees should consume only those things. That’s not an information diet; that’s fascism.
What I do mean is that your startup should consider making a more deliberate information consumption process happen as part of your corporate culture. Instead, it’s about creating a culture of deliberate consumption inside your organization.
How to start
First, ask yourself, what is your company’s current information diet? What are people reading? What is it that people are taking in? Just like with food, you’re always on an information diet of some kind, that diet just might not be very good. Taking a week, to keep a group journal of everyone’s intake either by using a service like RescueTime or by keeping an analog journal.
At the end of the week, have a meeting to share how much and what types of content everyone is consuming. I’ve found that, just like with a food journal, a lot of people are shocked by how much they’re consuming and how many hours of their life they’re spending on stuff that doesn’t matter. But this also gives everyone a chance to deliberately share resources, and knowing where good learning is coming from is important to share.
How to correct information diet imbalances
Second, think about what goes into a healthy information diet for your organization. In my book, I talk a lot about how it’s vital to default to local news and then grow to national news — and local news means really local: what’s going on in your house, at work, and in your neighborhood.
The same can be applied to your organization: is everybody tuned in to the political news, or is it comprised of news from far-away places that have little to do with the day-to-day business of things? Isn’t it odd that Reddit is better at communicating to people at your company than you are? Fix that.
Third, make sure to diversify your diet. Engaging yourself in constant affirmation about how great things are going, or even how great your industry is going, is a great way to pick up a disease called delusion. You’ve probably figured out that decisions ought to be made mostly on data with a little bit of intuition, but it’s important to empower both that data and that intuition with source material. Steve Jobs was great at his job not because he listened to what the customer had to say but because he knew what the customer wanted. Is your information diet giving you more insight on the former or the latter?
Finally, know that decompression time, time spent mindlessly cruising Facebook and the like, is actually good for you in limited doses. So just be conscious of the time you spend; don’t try to ban it outright. And don’t forget, part of a healthy information diet is a healthy sense of humor. Learn to laugh, especially at work.
There’s no way to design a universal information diet for every startup. Unlike food, information affects us all differently, and thus there isn’t really a generic prescription for every person or every startup. But a healthy information diet pays dividends. It creates a more open workplace that’s communicatative and responsive. Your business is already on an information diet, so why not make it a healthy one?
Clay Johnson is the author of The Information Diet, which provides a framework for consuming information in a healthy way, by showing you what to look for, what to avoid, and how to be selective. The Information Diet was recently published by O’Reilly.
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