Data and information are essential to solving problems well. Data and information are abundant these days. So why do we feel less able to figure things out and less confident about knowing what to do?
Too Much of a Good Thing
Part of the problem is that we have too much of a good thing. At all times and in all places, Information and data are effortlessly accessible. We are conditioned to prioritize incoming alerts and breaking news. We are awash in information, most of it unsatisfying. It’s hard to quench your thirst if you’re trying to drink from a firehose.
First, a working definition to help us differentiate data from information. Think of data as the unorganized facts and figures we detect with our various tools and measuring devices. Information is what you get when someone processes, structures, organizes, or otherwise interprets the data. 75248 is a number, it is data. When 75248 is recognized as a Zip Code, the data becomes information.
A Better Solution
One solution to the too-much-of-a-good-thing problem is to collect less data. A better solution is to learn how to transform abundant data into insightful information. Insights help you solve problems, but insights are hidden. Insightful information is better than obvious information in the same way that an x-ray image of a painful shoulder is better than a visual examination of a painful shoulder.
Better, more insightful information helps in four ways
- It helps you avoid solving the wrong problem
- It reduces the risk of missing something important
- It generates unconventional options
- It ensures that previously excluded perspectives are seen, heard, and valued
Solving problems is about changing situations. If you want to change a dissatisfying situation, you can think of your challenge as a tug-of-war between the forces holding things in place and the forces motivating change. Kurt Lewin first developed this way of thinking about problem-solving in the 1940s; he called it, “Force-field analysis.”
SCAN for Insights
At Unstuck Minds, we think of our SCAN model as a simplified version of Lewin’s force-field analysis. SCAN stands for Structures, Context, Assumptions, and Needs. Structures can be thought of as the ways we currently do things. Context can be thought of as what’s going on in the external environment. Assumptions can be thought of as our unquestioned beliefs. Needs can be thought of as the desires, concerns, and perspectives of people we should include.
To make it easier to identify the Lewin’s force-field elements, SCAN is made up of two dimensions that focus on restraining forces and two dimensions that focus on driving forces. Structures and Assumptions on the left side of the model tend to keep things stable and preserve the status quo. Context and Needs, on the right side of the model tend to introduce destabilizing changes.
How to Uncover Insights
Let’s say you’re an executive who has formed a team to tackle a thorny organizational problem. You fear that after the team has spent a lot of time researching and organizing their findings, you’ll be left with voluminous information, very few insights, and no clear point-of-view or recommended path forward.
Instead of waiting to see what the team comes up with, request that they organize their presentation based on the SCAN framework:
- Structures: What are we currently doing that will make it hard for us to implement an improvement?
- Context: What is changing in the environment that requires a response or provides an opportunity?
- Assumptions: What unquestioned beliefs about our situation are worth challenging?
- Needs: Who should we include in our thinking and planning; what matters to them and what do they think?
- Now What?: What insights and options emerged from your work and where should we focus our resources and efforts?
It seems counterintuitive to seek more information as a solution to the problem of information overload. But learning to form insights helps us manage the data and control the aperture of our attention. With practice, SCAN helps us see past the uninvited information to the hidden insights and options unavailable to the overwhelmed mind.
Jay G. Cone is the author of The Surprising Power of Not Knowing What to Do; Discovering Creativity and Compassion in a Time of Chaos. He is the co-founder of Unstuck Minds.