Are You Experiencing Filter Failure?

Tuesday, February 15th, 2011

I’ve just received a blog from the TomorrowToday website entirtled “Fox or Hedgehog? How will you shape your future?”  In view of the fact that I’ve recently been moaning about the information overload, I found the article very helpful, and so I’m taking the liberty of printing it in its entirety, and then adding my own comments:

In 1953, well before the information revolution seized the planet, philosopher Isaiah Berlin divided thinkers into two basic categories: the fox and the hedgehog. The difference is that hedgehogs know ‘one big thing’ whilst foxes know ‘many things’. A hedgehog will focus on one overriding idea whilst the fox darts from one thing to another, gathering multiple ideas and finding inspiration from a variety of sources.

Today’s array of social and information technologies dictate that we act more like foxes than hedgehogs. We all increasingly – and to various degrees, browse and scavenge for information, news and connections, be that through smart-phones or any one of a number of devices available. All this is forcing a new way of thinking on the majority of people who live and function in the connected world. There will always be a need for the hedgehog but it is the fox that is increasingly dominating the territory and as such, hedgehogs should rightly fear the foxes. At a State or collective level, the activity and dexterity of the fox serves as a threat to the very ideology of hedgehog thinking, as seen in the recent events that have unfolded in Egypt and that have been played out in front of a live-global audience.

In this world that is continually morphing and changing before our very eyes, adaptive intelligence will be essential at both a personal and communal level. Allied to adaptive intelligence will be the need to think and behave like a fox. Translating that thinking mindset into engagement with the multiple technologies at our disposal is something that is natural for Gen X and Y but will require some work for those of an older vintage. For those battling with this transition in the face of what seems like overwhelming information overload it might help to take to heart what Clay Shirkley said, “It is not information overload – its filter failure”.

The need then is to develop good filters in order to maximize the available information and cultivate the practice of fox-thinking. This is will be one of the major leadership challenges going forward.

If you would like to find someone to blame for this information flood other than Bill Gates, you might consider Dr. Claude Shannon. Shannon was a mathematician and the pioneer of modern information theory, having been educated at the University of Michigan and MIT. In 1949, he and Dr. Warren Weaver co-wrote The Mathematical Theory of Communication, which many consider the cornerstone of modern in¬formation theory. Weaver wrote his portion with less mathematics and condensed Shannon’s formulae into three components:

1. Technical (“Did you hear me?”),

2. Semantic (“Did you understand me?”), and

3. Behavioral (“What will you do? “)

These three components can serve as helpful filters when it comes to accessing and using information. Certainly we cannot rely on the wisdom that has got us here to be the wisdom that gets us to where we need to be. Developing fox-like instincts will require work for the vast majority of those leading in the new world of work.

I like this idea of filter failure!  In many ways, I guess I’ve struggled with this.  Sometimes I almost feel like I’ve lost out growing up and I need to absorb as much of this information as possible, until I reach overload.  I wrote recently about “the one thing” referring to that classic movie ‘City Slickers’.  I suppose one could say that I was suggesting we all become hedgehogs, but that’s not the case.  Hedgehogs only KNOW one thing.  No, I’m suggesting that we become foxes, KNOWING MANY things, but through this process of filtering, become focussed on doing things right – one at a time, and then making sure that it’s the right thing!