Thou Shalt Not Delay, Distort or Withhold Information

Systems need information

They use that information to control the way they act.

  • In a system of cells (like your body) that information flows along nerves and via hormones.
  • In a system of animals (like a colony of ants) that information flows via pheromones and signals.
  • In a system of people (like your business) it flows via management reports, work requests, meetings and conversations.

Without the flow of information, your body, the ant colony or your business won’t work nearly as well as it should.

Donella Meadows summed up how important information is when she wrote her eleventh commandment

Thou shalt not delay, distort or withhold information.


Delaying information

If you delay information your organisation will over compensate.

Imagine a central heating system. The boiler fires until it gets information from the thermostat to shut down. If this information flows quickly then the temperature in the room will level off at the set point, keeping a nice even temperature. But if there is a delay in the system (a broken thermostat) then the temperature in the room will vary wildly as the boiler pumps out heat until it is far too hot and then sits idly by as the temperature plummets.

The only difference in the graphs below is how long the feedback loop takes.

What works for a boiler also works for a business.

Imagine you sell credit for a living. You need to know now if your pricing policy is good.  If you think everything is OK and then you find out later that it isn’t, you will have a mountain of bad debt on your hands.

The same need for up to date information is equally true of efforts to fight infections in hospitals and crime rates in cities.  The slower the information flows the harder it is to maintain an even keel.

Distorting information

Acting on the wrong information is potentially worse than acting on late information. Information can be distorted in so many ways:

However the information is distorted it will suboptimise your organisation.

Withholding information

Sometimes you should withhold information e.g. doctor patient confidentiality. But keeping schtum rarely bodes well for system performance.

  • Nick Lesson’s decision to withhold information about his loses had a catastrophic impact on Barings bank.
  • Investigations into the Challenger disaster highlighted a lack of management communication.
  • If the CIA hadn’t withheld information from the FBI the twin tower attack may well have been stopped.

The fly in the ointment

Information is power. But only if you have it and others don’t. And the best way to keep it to yourself is to delay, distort or withhold it.

So personal power and organisational performance are often in conflict with each other.

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  1. The use of data to improve is powerful. Recognizing that the systemic impacts of doing so are critical is something that is often overlooked. And this failure to understand the weakness in the system leads to using poor data (data which is missing, distorted and delayed).

    The effective use of data is much more complicated than the math. Weaknesses in the management system have a huge affect on how data is used in the organization.

    • I couldn’t agree more with your last statement John. It is fascinating how many organisations are throwing money at “big data” and “predictive analytics” yet they haven’t grasped how important the way they act on the data is.

      Thanks for your comment