Dam, Flow or Flood: How Does Information Travel in Your Organization?

In agile, complex, collaborative organizations, there is a direct connection between the quality of information flow and the quality of results. Shared context (or shared consciousness as described in the great book Team of Teams by General McChrystal) is a fundamental requirement for smart coordination, empowered execution, and distributed decision making. However, many organizations find themselves stuck with an information dam – or an information flood – or both.

Dams: Some organizations are plagued with places where information abruptly stops. Maybe it’s a level of leadership that doesn’t consistently cascade key messages to their teams. Or it’s decisions that don’t get written down. It could be an obscure place on the intranet that only Dan knows about. Or it might get stuck behind a password, when it needs to be in the wild. Some dams are deliberate – the result of outdated beliefs that hording information is a path to power. But most are accidental.

Floods: Many organizations have the opposite problem: A flood of information in the form of hundreds of emails, IMs, Slack channels, Box links, Team sites, intranet, server folders, update meetings, dashboards, and more. Even the list is overwhelming. Information flooding is almost always the result of thousands of well-meaning acts that add up to a deluge. No wonder knowledge workers spend 20% of their time hunting for information.

It’s said that information is power, but it’s far more accurate to say that relevant information is power. The rest is just noise.

Getting information to flow correctly is possible, but it demands intention, design, and discipline. As a first step, pull your team together to assess the current state within your organization. Where is information getting stuck behind a dam? Are people overwhelmed by a flood of channels, emails and update meetings? If it’s not where you want it to be, consider these questions:

  • Do your information systems support both information producers (people creating content) and consumers (people using that content to meet their objectives)?

  • Are there silos or information hubs that prevent information from being shared broadly?

  • Can your team subscribe to the information they need and tune their notification settings based on personal preference?

  • Is shared information searchable and on-demand?

  • Does the team share strong standards for where and how to manage information?

Use your insights from the conversation to start taking concrete steps forward. We’ll talk about some of the more complex ideas in a future article. For now, these two no-regrets moves are a great place to start. 

1. Stop “defaulting” to email

Is email your go-to for sharing information? Before you hit send again, consider these significant shortcomings: Attachments are immediately out of date, it’s very easy to lose the thread when multiple people are responding, content isn’t easily referenceable or reusable in the future, and the recipient (consumer) can’t control what he or she sees. There’s no way to add or remove yourself from an email. We suggest limiting it to specific use cases:

  • Information exchange between two or three people

  • Simple information with a short shelf-life

  • Relatively isolated conversations

  • Communication with people outside your organization

When you do use it, help your recipients manage their information flow:

  • Limit the number of recipients

  • Use the cc line for anyone for whom it is a (valid) FYI

  • Use the @ mention in the body for anyone to whom you are directing a question or requesting an action

2. Establish team practices for using Slack (or Microsoft Teams or other…)

If you are one of the over 8 million daily users of Slack, you know its power to transform the way information flows across an organization. But like any tool, you run the risk of misusing it. We suggest your team adopt these practices:

  • Prevent dams by using public channels as much as possible. This ensures information is accessible and searchable by anyone who needs it

  • Prevent floods by selectively joining or leaving channels as your needs evolve

  • Use pins to keep track of information that is important or that you’re likely to return to

  • If you have a specific question or action for someone, use the @mention to call it to their attention

The ability to collaborate requires people have access to the right information at the right time. These steps will make a meaningful difference in your team’s day to day operations.

By Shani Harmon and Renee Cullinan