Information Reduction

guestblogger Adam Cole (Toronto, Manager Applications and Development for McKesson Canada)

To enhance the flavour of a dish one technique frequently used is that of reduction. Reduction is a process of boiling-off the filling but flavourless water.

We live in a time where information is abundant but the mechanisms to filter and synthesize that information trail behind. Evidence of this is everywhere from bloated inboxes to sophisticated omnipresent advertising. From business reports, metrics, business intelligence (BI), analysis, and the like to an ever expanding number of channels by which information is delivered; decision making is impaired by an overload of information. It is easy to envision that the company which can make quick decisions based on sound advice is nimble and competitive.

All through our academic years we are taught that more is better. Every assignment reinforces this false ideal by identifying the "minimum number” of words or pages due – and keep those margins to 1 inch and the font to 10-point! No doubt you realize that quantity is seldom the objective in business reporting, but old habits die hard. Let me share three recent experiences that underscore the importance of focusing your energy on eliminating quantity.

  1. Bain consultants wrote an excellent article on metrics, "Why it matters to measure what matters". You can probably guess the theme of this article. In the essence of reduction, the one sentence in this article that is most relevant here is, "New measures were added and few were removed". For most companies this also applies to adding people, adding processes, adding budget items, etc. The closely related management principals of Kaizen and Six Sigma instruct us to continuously improve and reduce variability. The juxtaposition of these principals in our current context is continuous elimination of inefficiencies, noise, and other attributes which add nominal value. (For today’s competitive business nominal value is not sufficient. Maintaining processes which support nominal value are distractions to be eliminated.)
  2. Within the world of software development, quality and reliability are inversely proportional to quantity. This is straightforward but important enough to repeat in a technical context: As the number of lines of code grows the overall reliability and maintainability decreases. Others capture this concept more succinctly:

    Perfection [in design] is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.
    ~ Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

    Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler.
    ~ Albert Einstein

    One of my most productive days was throwing away 1,000 lines of code.
    ~ Ken Thompson

  3. Once a quarter I hold Steering Committee Meetings. At these SCMs I present to and receive direction from five VPs. Being in front of a team of five VPs is a big deal for me. I spend days preparing for these SCMs and try to cram as much astute information into my presentation as possible. (I certainly don’t want these VPs thinking I am unprepared or worse; don’t have deep insight into my domain.) At my most recent SCM I knew we would be pressed for time so I stripped out much of my content, cut a bunch of metrics, removed non-essential project details, and eliminated (what I perceived to be) important background information. I was shocked when the feedback unanimously said this was the best SCM I had conducted. I probably don’t need to say what I learned from a little post-mortem introspection – the VPs actually appreciated having less in the presentation.

The lesson I have learned? Going forward I commit to practicing the art of reduction while preparing my business dishes.