We all deal with a flood of information. Spam, unwanted correspondence, and irrelevant information stuff our inboxes and voicemail. It can be difficult—despite sophisticated technological communication systems—to get clear and relevant information.
Pager usage peaked in the late 1990s and has been declining ever since. Some view pagers as obsolete and the punch line of jokes. But interestingly, pagers have become niche products for professions in fields like medicine, IT, and public safety. If a server goes down and a quick response is needed, the IT consultant wearing the pager knows that his pager alert most likely means a server has failed. He might receive three email messages and three texts to his smartphone, notifying him that the server went down, but those notifications are diluted by dozens of other email messages and texts received within the same timeframe. Similarly, a physician on call might receive a voicemail telling her to come in, but the voicemail is in a queue with 15 other unanswered voicemail recordings. It’s the pager that she responds to because no one else contacts her on her pager.
Engineers use signal-to-noise ratios (SNRs) to measure how effectively a signal cuts through background noise. Two email notices sent about a security alert may be two of 25 email messages received within the hour (an SNR of 2:23). In contrast, one pager alert may be only one of two pages received within that hour, yielding a much more effective signal-to-noise ratio of 1:1. To the extent pagers can differentiate in these contexts, offering a dramatically higher SNR, they function as niche communication devices.
Our organizations, like our lives, have low SNRs. There are always multiple opportunities worth taking and resources needed for worthwhile activities. Every support function in an organization has worthwhile work and needs resources. If we attend to everything that is “worthwhile,” this creates a lot of noise.
Strategy is the critical signal, directing important decisions about resources and what we will fund and staff. Strategy defines tradeoffs, about what work enables that strategy more than others. Some work must be the best in field, while other work only needs to be adequate. Without a clear strategy and an understanding of how that translates into necessary tradeoffs, the noise in an organization can derail talents and resources. Clear strategy removes noise so that important signals aren’t missed.