too much data
November 27, 2018

Information Overload: When Too Much Data Hurts Your Business

Citibike, EasyBike, MyByk, Bycyklen, Xianbicycle. If you visit any major city around the world, you’ll likely see a bike-sharing program.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in certain major Chinese cities. As we’ve written about previously, venture capitalists recently saw a massive opportunity for bike sharing in the highly populated country and poured millions into making bikes so they could turn a fat profit.

Unfortunately, the result was a nightmare. Too many companies had the same idea at the same time, and the streets of certain Chinese cities were flooded with so many bikes that no one could use them, much less use the sidewalks.

City officials had to ship the sea of bicycles (new and unused) off to graveyards where they’ll likely never be ridden.

It was a failure on a grand scale—one that resulted not just in the meltdown of the companies who produced the bikes but also in thousands of hours of unnecessary labor. In addition, all those bikes will take decades to rot, hurting the environment in the process.

Too Much of a Good Thing

These bicycle graveyards are a perfect symbol of having too much of a good thing. What people wanted was the ability to get from Point A to Point B. What they got instead was a miles-long pile of bikes on the outskirt of their city.

In some sense, we’re facing a similar problem when it comes to the total amount of data being created worldwide on a daily basis. What we want is the exact data we need to get our job done more effectively. But too often, we’re overwhelmed by the data on hand, unable to make sense of it in a way that actually helps us.

As proof, when we surveyed 2,000 knowledge workers in the U.S. about data in our State of Work report, we found:

  • 40% say they have good data but struggle to make the right decisions with it
  • 27% say they have good data and know what to do with it
  • 17% say they’re still not collecting the right kind of data
  • 13% say they’re drowning in data that it makes work more confusing
  • 4% say they want more data

To the point: Only 4% of us want more data, while 70% of us struggle to put our data to good use.

It makes sense. Having access to millions of data points without being able to put that data to use can feel like trying to walk down a sidewalk crowded with hundreds of bicycles. The excess bikes—or the excess data—just get in the way.

We have an abundance of uninformative information.

So, how do you work to solve this problem? How do you avoid being overwhelmed by uninformative information?

1. Name your commander’s intent.

In his upcoming book, Done Right, Workfront CEO Alex Shootman writes about the military concept of commander’s intent, which at its core clearly defines the single most important thing your team can do to succeed.

For example, at Workfront we say, “The single most important thing this team can do is to create and keep customers.” It’s a statement that guides all other decisions at the company, especially when it comes to data. We ask, “Will tracking this data help us create and keep customers?” If it doesn’t, we don’t get distracted by it, knowing that such data—no matter how interesting—will detract from our main goal.

Another example on this front comes from Southwest airlines, which historically aimed to be the low-cost airline. When the company noticed that customers flying from Houston to Las Vegas were requesting meals, they ignored the data. Following through on the request would have required them to raise prices, which wasn’t their primary goal.

The lesson here is that you’ll want to name your commander’s intent and then focus on data directly related to reaching your primary goal.

2. Focus on your competitive advantage.

If you’re looking at the exact same dataset your competitors are looking at, you won’t stand out. The key is to know your competitive advantage and focus relentlessly on data related to that.

You might lose out when it comes to certain metrics, but if those metrics aren’t measuring the ways you’re aiming to win, so be it. You can ignore them in favor of placing your attention completely on what you do best. As the writer Marty Neumeier says, “The three most important words in differentiating your brand: focus, focus and focus.” Companies that focus on their competitive advantage reap the rewards that come with that competitive advantage.

3. Promote critical thinking above raw data acquisition.

Thanks to a deluge of inaccurate or incomplete data available today, we live in the age of misinformation. It’s easier than ever to be taken in by phony stories, manufactured statistics, and fake reports. At such a time as this, our primary goal shouldn’t be to acquire more and more data.

Instead, our primary goal should be to know the difference between what is important and what isn’t—all while being able to use the data we already have on hand to build an accurate view of the world we inhabit. If your team develops strong critical thinking skills, they’ll quickly spot uninformative information and then ignore it in favor of metrics that matter.

When that happens, you’ll find you have exactly what you need to get from Point A to Point B—and nothing more.

Get Workfront blog updates straight to your inbox.