Just the Facts, Ma’am: Opening space for the “difference that makes a difference”

In the long-running radio and tv series Dragnet, the main character, police sergeant Joe Friday, became famous for his direction to witnesses. In his own minimalist, deadpan style, he always asked for a brief telling of the most important points. “Just the facts, ma’am,” became a cultural cliche.

But… how did Joe Friday know what the witnesses knew? How did he know what they might tell him, that might lead to a better, successful outcome. On Dragnet, Joe Friday always got the criminal (and understanding that these stories were hand-picked actual cases from the L.A. P.D.).

“Time is money” is as much a business cliche as Joe Friday’s request for “just the facts.” But. . .

We know we are often constrained by time. Challenges arose that require a response right now. Or soon. Or maybe.

We know we are easily overwhelmed by the massive amounts of information that are instantly available to us today. Search the web for any topic you can imagine, and in seconds, you have more information than you can digest in a week.

Ideas compete for our attention, and our time. The boss needs your report by noon tomorrow. You have to pick up your child at school but there was an accident on the highway. How can you be the first to market with your amazing new food truck concept?

In a recent conversation, I was consulted for advice on a particular IT product. The person asking knows me exceptionally well. they have spent most of their career inside large and very well-known corporations. They are a specialist in a highly complex set of international laws and regulations. Right answers and optimal strategies can mean millions in savings or penalties to their employers and clients. This is a person accustomed to being ordered to deliver Executive Summaries to C-level bosses.

I had done a bit of research on the IT products in question. A product I am very familiar with. I knew there were a handful of basic questions I could ask, that would quickly narrow the field of options. I also knew that future needs might change, and should be considered in making a choice now. So I prepared and made my response with a bit more than “Just the facts.”

In return, I was told (and in a very friendly and nice way) that I should have given a more brief “Executive Summary.” And so I asked:

How do you know if you know all you need to know to make your best decision?

How do you know what Iknow?

How do you know if something I am going to tell you might be the critical piece of information that would make the difference in your thinking, decision, and outcome?

Yes, I saiid, “time is money.” But, I added, “so too is information that makes a difference.”

Joe Friday only had 30 minutes to solve the case. Confining witness comments to the bare facts might have worked for him. But even when we are pressed for time, we should consider the source – and the odds that if we simply invite someone to inform us – we might Gregory Bateson’s well-known meaning of information – “a difference that makes a difference.”

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