Unpacking Transformation 2020, Part 9: Signal/Noise

A Guide To Subverting Digital Transformation Hype And Clearing Your Path To Discovery, Ignition & Growth

No Time Like The Present

It’s hard to imagine a better opportunity for a hard reset of our information diet than Q1 of 2020 when rolling, global quarantines have us isolated and starved for useful information on COVID-19 and a return to normalcy. I have news. Useful information isn’t coming.

News and marketing converged centuries ago and the transformation is ongoing. We consume increasingly low quality information through an increasingly emotional lens, ever watchful for triggers and affirmation of our existing opinions. This is highly desirable behavior for marketers and we are (almost) invisibly groomed for it. Governments and ideologues join the feast. The best defense is simply to cut consumption from as many sources as possible.

“It’s not the daily increase but daily decrease. Hack away at the unessential.” –Bruce Lee

Steps I Took To Improve My S/N Ratio (Incrementally Over 5 Years)

  • Cut TV/cable news and major newspapers — untrustworthy
  • Cut Facebook and other SM — low value, addictive by design
  • Cut “journalists” and political talk shows — manipulative more than informative
  • Blocked non-essential notifications across mobile/tablet/desktop
  • Removed all media & chat apps from home screen, deleted SM and games
  • Add Bloomberg app for TV/Radio morning shows only, not print – markets & business, less politics (update 4/15/2020: bias explosion during COVID crisis)
  • Add Reuters and AP apps — global coverage, less tabloid-y
  • Add books and podcasts — podcasting is a breakaway category for high-quality, long-form interviews on any topic imaginable
  • Wildcard — after 8 years and 5 attempts, I got Twitter dialed-in to deliver high signal/low noise. I follow about 100 thoughtful business people who write and/or share writing from others. No journalists, no mainstream news, no politics, no celebs. That’s what works for me. Not sure how appealing that is to you.

What I find as I cut mainstream sources is that I recover a lot of previously wasted time and have significantly lower blood pressure. Learning replaces navel-gazing. I also notice an increased ability to process information with indifference to my own, or others’, opinions — at least more than before. There’s no single playbook that will work for everyone but the baseline is to cut aggressively.

Much like the business transformation, there’s no end-state. Every time you install a new app you have to make a choice to allow/not allow notifications. Every digital choice you make every day — the websites you visit, Google searches, e-commerce purchases, account sign-ups, newsletter opt-in, social media likes/posts/messages/connections, and more — are used against you. The attention economy is chasing you while you sleep — mining and grinding your personal data into a slurry of personalized recommendations invasive bullshit.

Adult Journal or Teenage Diary?

If further evidence that once-trusted sources are no longer trustworthy, read the following from Ray Dalio. This is just the first incident…

The Wall Street Journal wrote an article that said “Bridgewater Bets Big on Market Drop.” It’s wrong. I want to make clear that we don’t have any such net bet that the stock market will fall. We explained to Juliet Chung, the author of the article, that to convey us having a bearish view of the stock market would be misleading, but it was done anyway. I believe that we are now living in a world in which sensationalistic headlines are what many writers want above all else, even if the facts don’t square with the headlines. You can believe me or you can believe The Wall Street Journal writer. I hope you have come to know that you can believe me.” — Ray Dalio on LinkedIn, 2020 (pre-coronavirus)

Retractions, once an embarrassment to reputable newsrooms, are now just backstop mechanisms to wiggle out of potential lawsuits.

How Does This Translate To Leadership?

As a leader it’s important to recognize that everyone is confronted with their own version of overload and are likely getting more noise than signal. The S/N ratio is one of many reasons why I argue that org-wide transformation, as a starting point, is fantasy. More on change and group dynamics here.

Digital transformation spending in the next few years is estimated in the trillions. That kind of opportunity creates tremendous marketing noise and encourages overwhelm. Generic thinkers call for splashy announcements and constant communication. I recommend the opposite. Stop talking and start delivering incremental results that get people’s attention organically. In other words, add signal not noise.

3 Ways To Increase Signal

  1. Acknowledge that you’re in unfamiliar territory: smart people can see through vanity definitions and bravado. Be straight and respect people’s intelligence or the smart ones will leave and the rest will stay.
  2. Quash the prevailing wisdom: it’s not wisdom, it’s marketing noise. Thought leaders = marketers, Forbes Technology Council = marketers, Inc./Fast Company/Wired/ = marketers, some percentage of HBR & MIT article are written by marketers. Hell, I’m a marketer! Pay attention to the authors and their probable motives.
  3. Choose leaders and participants carefully: who you choose to lead and participate in change & transformation efforts will speak louder than any communication strategy ever can — and they will determine success or failure.

Opportunity shows up in moments of adversity. Take it.

ICYMI here’s the introduction & article index to the Unpacking Transformation 2020 series.

Thomas Irre is the founder of HK5, LLC, Practical Business Technology and Mental Self-Defense for leaders & teams.