Bob Lieberman's Blog

Commentary and Tools For Empowering Change

Information Overload: Alarm or Transformation?

We hear so much about information overload these days. Is it possible that stating our predicament that way is already cutting us off from an entire world of potential solutions?

Margaret Wheatley might think so. I've been enjoying her 1992 book, Leadership and the New Science. According to her reading of chaos theory, alarms like "information overload" often signal the birth of a fundamentally new response to a changing environment.

That would be good! But the idea can be hard to swallow. "Information overload" sounds like a temporary situation, doesn't it? Like a flood or a big rainstorm. The term practically begs us to believe that a bigger pail will get the situation under control – if we can only find one. The pail might be a collector, an organizer, a filter, a categorizer. It may take the form of software, policy, practice, or organizational structure.

The trouble is, it's still a pail, and a bigger pail is not going to be an effective response for very long. If you're not convinced, just ask yourself these questions:
  • Is the amount of information in the world growing?
  • Is its rate of growth accelerating?
  • Is that trend a spike or permanent?

I'm convinced that we're on a path of permanently accelerating information growth, and there will never be a pail big enough to manage it. Instead of asking more management questions, like "what are we doing" and "how are we doing it", we need to be asking more leadership questions, like "where are we going" and "what will we need when we get there".

But it's hard to think like that when you're frantically looking for a pail. So a key challenge for the leader, in this case and in others, is cultivating the habit of letting go of the task at hand.

Why not start practicing right now? Is there something eating at you? What trouble, unsolved problem, or source of stress seems to demand your attention? Got one? OK, now let go of it – it's not really important, it will take care of itself, someone else will take care of it, you can get used it.

Do you feel free? Is your mind clearer? That's good. Do you feel like you're neglecting your responsibility? That's bad. If you do, you're falling into a mental trap of your own making. Only bums neglect responsibility, and you're not a bum. Leaders, like you, accept the big responsibilities – and this is how you do it.