Manager’s Skill: Separate Signal from Noise

One of the best skills you can cultivate as a manager is separating signal from noise, understanding what you pay attention to, and what you ignore as irrelevant.

However I’m not going to underestimate the effort it will take on your part: Separating signal from noise is very difficult to do in today’s world. It’s a skill you have to focus on grooming constantly.

walk on Flickr by Paul Goyette

The problem we managers face, is that the noisy stuff gets loud and rowdy, and very hard to ignore. Signals on the other hand, are just the opposite: They have a tendency to be soft or silent, requiring your diligence with seeking them out.

Often there are signals within the noise which grabs our attention, but if we don’t look for them we can miss those signals too. Here are some examples:

Signal: An aisle on your shop floor which hasn’t been restocked in weeks, maybe months
Noise: The traffic spike you get with endcap displays near the door during a week it happened to rain a lot

Signal: Slipping job performance, which has gradually happened over the past six months time for a long-term employee
Noise: A customer complaint stemming from one unfortunate employee incident during a new hire’s probationary period

Signal: The doodling that happens during most of your staff meetings
Noise: All those open laptops people claim to need for their note-taking, which has replaced the conversation you used to have in your meetings

I’ll bet you can think of a bunch more. Sit for a moment and reflect on your day yesterday: What was signal, and what was noise?

Now here’s the money question: Which ones did you spend the most time dealing with?

You see there’s an added complication we managers run into: Others expect us to be the ones who deal with the noise and dispense of it for them, and we generally agree with them, that yes, that’s part of our job (I don’t always agree with that assumption, but that can be another post for another day).

So okay, let’s say you do need to deal with both signal and noise. The danger you can fall into if you’re not careful, is that you give a disproportionate amount of your managing energy to the noise, and not enough to the signal. It’s similar to trying to lead all the time, when you need to devote the managing effort it takes to execute on the leadership ideas that are already strategically agreed on, yet have remained incomplete.

Here’s the good news:

A simple self-coaching trick can help you. All you need is a page in a notebook you’ll commit to sitting with for a few minutes at the end of your workweek for the next month. If you honor your commitment, that’s about the time it takes to solidify a new habit, one which will train you with pinpointing more of the signals you should be awarding your attentions to.

At the end of each workday, repeat the exercise I gave you as a for-example above, and just ask yourself:

“Looking back upon my day, what was signal, and what was noise?”

As you separate the two, your instincts as an Alaka‘i Manager will kick in, and you will know what you have to do in dealing with signals better, and with noise quicker. The hardest part is your awareness of the difference between them, so you CAN intentionally decide what to work on.

Be a signal chaser, and a noise squelcher. The result you will gain is two-fold:

  1. A reputation for better follow-up. What people will appreciate getting from you is your work on signals, not on noise.
  2. An eventual lessening of the noise. You’re now getting to the root cause of noise when you deal with it (the true signal within the noise), and there are less repeated offenders.

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Archive Aloha ~ A few related posts:

  1. Cultivating a Well-Behaved Mind
  2. Management is What and How
  3. Leadership is Why and When

More self-coaching exercises:
Coaching Caveat: Tackle just one habit at a time!

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  2. Be the Best Communicator
  3. Add Conversation to your Strong Week Plan