Single point of truth: 6 suggestions

The other day I received two emails from my engineers. Both of them had summarized a meeting they had attended representing their respective business units. If I had not known their emails were describing the same meeting I could not have told: They both gave me a totally different summary. Clearly we were in need of a single point of truth!

Single point of truth

Redundancy is the first step towards inconsistency

This is a common observation in IT: if information is kept in several places at the same time there is a high probability it will eventually become inconsistent.

In database design this has led to the development of so-called normal forms. These rules for designing databases make sure information is always stored in one place only.

Unfortunately normal forms are not always efficient: every time data is processed in context, its “data atoms” have to be reassembled. When processing huge amounts of data this is infeasible. So-called data warehouses therefore allow a redundant storage of data to speed up processing.

If you think about it, we have a very similar situation in the office today: In times of taylorism certain individual specialists possessed part of the companys knowledge exclusively. Elaborate processes controlled the reassembly of this fractional information to create a total.

Meanwhile we have learned that this approach is not flexible enough for modern knowledge work. We emphasize the importance of flexible teams to attack varying challenges. As a result entire (temporary) teams need to share information. Information that will eventually be inconsistent…

Single point of truth

You might suspect now that I talked you through this elaborate analogy because data warehouses have a solution for the redundancy problem. Well, yes and no. They don’t really have a solution. But they have devised a way to deal with it. The trick is to define which one of the redundant data sources is authoritative for which question. This is called the single point of truth.

So if you did not follow my long winded excursion: the point I want you to take home is: whenever there are several sources of  information, define an authoritative, single point of truth.

As an example think of  the protocol of a meeting. If everybody makes personal notes during the meeting that is a form of redundancy that will lead to inconsistency. If you have exactly one official protocol that is a single point of truth.

“But what”, you might ask, ” if among the different data sources you choose the wrong point of truth?” Well, you then usually have somebody with a clear motivation to correct the mistake. Think about the protocol again: if as an attendee I feel misrepresented, I will have the protocol changed – as long as I know it will be considered the single point of truth.

Effects

Now you might say, people are allowed to believe and observe whatever they want. Why the fuss? Read the following possible effects and think again:

Deadlocks

In the situations described above it is not uncommon that everybody thinks, others have to move first. As a result nobody will move. That is the reason my kids learn to apologize even if “the other one has started the fight!”.

Inconsistent action

As everybody has a different theory what is to be done, there will be a flurry of uncoordinated activity. Often there will be no tangible result.

Slow learning

Everybody will tell you that he/she has learned from experience. In truth everybody may just have cemented their personal beliefs. There is no interference of perspectives.

Conclusion

While I believe that as individuals we may believe whatever we want it is obvious that we need to act coherently as a company. Basis for action is always the analysis of the current situation.  That is why we need single points of truth!

Causes

But if we all live in the same world why are our truths sometimes differing so much?

1. Beliefs

As humans we constantly try to make sense of life. We keep formulating beliefs as working hypothesis’ (“thinking fast”, according to Kahnemann). And we protect these believes as long as we can (hence the phenomenon of “cognitive dissonance”). Hence when observing a situation we have the tendency to interprete it in accordance with our beliefs. The funny thing is that it makes us believe them even stronger – even if they are wrong.

2. Need of self-acceptance

(I guess that headline did get you!) We have the tendency to see ourselves as the heroes in our life’s story (at least if we are in good mental health). We are “up where we belong”. How could we live with ourselves otherwise? Hence we keep seeing the source of problems anywhere but in ourselves. You could see this as special form of belief: the unshakable belief that we are the good ones.

3. Devil in the details

Of cause sometimes there is no specific bias. Still the world is so complex that we keep abstracting to keep a grasp on it. And these abstractions sometimes are arbitrary. I see this most often when defining KPIs. Example: It is often reported that flying is saver than driving. That is true if you count the casualties per mile travelled. If you count the causalties per minute travelling flying is less safe than driving.

Putting it into practice

Here are a few recommendations for practical implementation:

1. Establish a clear reporting chain

I wrote about reporting earlier. By defining whose interpretation you will buy by default, you establish a single point of truth (of cause you need to check the validity of the interpretation from time to time).

2. Have exactly one protocol for meetings

The meeting minutes become the explicit point of truth.

3. Make people sort out their differences directly

Whenever you observe a case of drastically differing perspectives make people discuss this directly. Resist the temptation to play judge. At MACH we have all managers read the monthly reports of the other units. If one unit reports problems in another unit, that should normally prompt the reaction of that unit’s manager.

4. Don’t accept individual truths

Make clear to everybody that a consistent perspective on things is a fundamental requirement for consistent action. When somebody offers you a truth that is different from the current basis for action drive for convergence instead of letting her live in a “parallel universe”. That will always make things better – either for that one person or for all the others.

5. Invite everybody to question their beliefs

When working with your engineers questions like the following might help:

“What makes you sure of that?”

“What evidence do you have for that?”

“What have you observed recently that is in conflict with your assumption?”

“What do you imagine does colleague X think about it?”

6. Foster a feedback culture

Feedback helps us question our beliefs and keeps us “in synch” with the rest of the world. Train your engineers to provide feedback as a reflex.

Summing up

A diversity of perspectives is great to get a complete understanding of a situation! Before taking action however, a consistent picture of that situation is necessary. In other words a single point of truth must be established. Some simple steps can help you to get this done.

Photo by 9eorge

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1 Response

  1. 2016-09-09

    […] should also try to make sure that the criticism reaches its target. I mentioned earlier that at MACH we have every department report monthly and that all managers have access to these […]

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