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Why You Need to Drink from the Fire Hose


Last updated 11/23/2011

Christopher Frank and Paul Magnone are coauthors of the new book Drinking from the Fire Hose: Making Smarter Decisions Without Drowning in Information (Portfolio/Penguin, 2011). The book’s thesis is that the challenge in business today is not the volume of data we receive, but rather figuring out how to use it effectively. Frank is a vice president at American Express, where he is responsible for advertising, brand, and B-to-B research. He previously spent 10 years at Microsoft as a senior director of research. Magnone is a director of business development and alliances at Openet, a global telecommunications software and consulting firm. He was previously a senior director at IBM, where he started and grew four consulting businesses.

The authors discussed their book recently as part of an AMA Edgewise podcast. The following has been adapted and condensed from that interview.

AMA: Why has information overload become such a huge problem?
Paul Magnone: The irony is that although we have more information at our fingertips than we’ve ever had, we feel less informed. We know that everything that gets measured gets done, yet what we find today is we don't have the right information. People struggle with trying to bridge the gap between the information they have and how to actually use it effectively.

Christopher Frank: Our whole approach is to really reduce the pressure. The Economist estimated that last year as a culture, we created 1,200 exabytes of data. That’s 22 million books worth of data, which is five times the amount from 2005. So the velocity of how much information is coming at us is increasing. The challenge is to harness it, to not be afraid of it, to manage it, and then to turn it to your benefit so that it actually helps you and your company.

PM: It’s all about how to change the dialogue with your business partners and with your colleagues, whether you’re on the client side in terms of working with marketing, management, senior leadership, or you’re an agency and trying to work with your clients.  How do you actually shift that dialogue? And one thing we found out, and why we wrote this book, was the questions really are the key to unlocking it. These were the lessons that we wish we had known early in our career.

AMA: You just mentioned questions. What makes questions so powerful?
PM: As you grow up, in terms of through your education, you’re always taught that you have to have the answer; study and get the right answer. You start to build your career. Even today as you prepare to do a presentation, you prepare to have the answer. And the minute someone asks you a question, you’re like a deer in headlights.  Questions are very powerful because they really do unlock new information. They enable you to say, “Tell me what isn’t in there,” or “Tell me what is not on paper.”

One thing we have found is the smartest person in the room asks the question. And time and again, I know when I worked at Microsoft, for example, I would prepare for weeks, and I’ve been fortunate to present to Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer. I would prepare for weeks. I would do my dry runs. And then, I would go into the meeting and they would ask one question. They’d say, “You know what I wish I knew?” And I thought, “I wish I knew that question a couple of weeks ago.”

That “I wish I knew” was just a powerful opener. It shifted the whole view of the analysis and data we had in front of us.

AMA: How can managers use questions to inform their strategic decisions in day-to-day operations so they get the strategic as well as the tactical involved in these questions?
PM: There’s this flood of information coming to managers and they have to make sense of it.  The the way to make sense of it is to ask the questions to clarify. What are the details? What are the specifics? That drives the focus on numbers and analytics. And analytics are great, but analytics, just for the sake of getting into the numbers, doesn’t answer the question about how you’re aligned with the business, how you’re driving the business goals. So putting a structure to that, asking the right questions to say, “Okay, I know the what, but so what about that? What do I do about that? How do I drive forward? How do I make a choice?  How do I not get paralyzed by this overwhelming amount of information that’s coming in, and be able to make some decisions, or at least have some good parameters around understand what’s in bounds and what’s out of bounds as I move forward?”

AMA: In the book, you present the concept of seven “Fire Hose Questions.” Can you give us a brief outline of those questions?
PM: The point of the book is to help break the habit of gathering and presenting too much information, and to give people the tools—the seven Fire Hose Questions—to help them break the habit.

1: What is the essential question? Reveal the key information.

2. Where is your customer’s North Star? Shift to a customer-focused view.

3. Should you believe the squiggly line? Question the validity of short-term data.

4. What surprised you? Permit real dialogue. Uncover hidden information to identify approaching danger.

5. What does the lighthouse reveal? Learn to separate the important signals from noise and irrelevant information.

6. Who are your swing voters? Revive the customer conversation. Most customers, just like voters, fall between the extremes. Identify your swing voters and reach out to them.

7. What? So what? Now what? Expose insights. This three-part approach provides you with a simple framework for cutting through information overload and getting to the “Now What?” questions you ask before initiating action.

If you have a culture that already asks these types of questions and where people are open to what will surprise them, terrific. If you don't, these are really seven tips, tricks, and techniques to enable that and to shift that.

AMA: What would you like to be the primary takeaway for managers who read your book?
PM: I think it’s summed up in the book’s opening quotation: “He uses statistics as a drunken man uses lamp posts…for support rather than illumination.” That’s by Andrew Lang. The one takeaway that I would like to see is, this is not about becoming a numbers wiz, a data geek. This is around using information and data for illumination. Too many times people spend so much time crunching the data, creating the Excel, making the case in terms of financial numbers and watching the squiggly line. And what we were trying to say is, “Don't worry about the numbers. Figure out where you want to go, and then the numbers will help to illuminate that.” So don't use it as lamp post to lean on.

CF: One thing that we should mention is we’re not anti numbers. We have technical backgrounds. We’re not saying that the analytics will go away. The analytics need to be there, but you need to know where to focus. That’s the key.