Failing to Connect the Dots

President Obama described the US intelligence system’s failure to preempt Umar Farouk AbdulMutallab’s botched attempt at blowing up the Northwest Airlines flight on Christmas Day as a failure to connect the dots. Let’s be honest with ourselves; this is one of the most common failings in all our organizations. Sometimes it means a crisis is not averted, but far more often it means missing a real opportunity.

For more than a decade we have been talking about how difficult it is for organizations to learn what they know. This weakness spawned the entire field of knowledge management. But for all our new systems of organizing information, it still comes down to human analysis and action.

Instead of waiting until the next time you are in your own version of the Situation Room trying to figure out what happened and why, maybe it is time to make time for processes that help us humans connect the dots. Here are some low-cost options that do not require the resources of the US treasury to put in place:

  • Invest in staying informed.  Scan the key publications, websites and other information resources in your field. Really read one or two insightful articles you uncover in your scanning.
  • Truly study any analysis and data your own organization generates.  It’s not enough to know what you are required to know; pay attention to what other departments and units produce as well.  
  • Reflect on what you are reading and hearing and transform this information into knowledge you can use immediately.  That’s the only way to retain information long enough to make it useful.
  • Ask tough questions regularly that begin with why, what if, and how.  We all operate with assumptions to save thinking time but untested assumptions are very dangerous.
  • Develop and promote your system integrators. These people thrive at the intersections of your knowledge flows. Not only do they know their own area of responsibility well, they have a clear understanding of how their work connects to others. They see all the dimensions: your critical operating details and the big picture of your strategy and value promise.
  • Declare a “connect the dots” day of analysis and reflection with your team. You have more than enough to learn from each other to make this timeout a good investment.

What makes failing to connect the dots so tragic is how close we almost always are to the knowledge we really need to do a better job. In our busyness we constantly give our attention to the urgent at the expense of the truly important insights and decisions that shape our destiny.