Drinking from the Fire Hose

There’s a scene towards the end of Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” in which Marion Cotillard’s character complains that everything is going too fast. That she pines for a simpler time with a slower pace.

And she’s living in the 1920s.

But who among us has not felt overwhelmed by the pace of life? Who has not tried to wade through powerpoints so chockfull of information that you need a magnifying glass to read them and a derrick crane to lift them? Who has not greeted the morning sun to find that the number of emails in your inbox has doubled or even tripled? Who has not come to the realization that if you really want to get anything done at work, you have to do it before 8 or after 6? Because once the crew shows up, it’s four-alarm city until the whistle blows?

This is all probably terrific news for Christopher J. Frank and Paul Magnone, because it means that their book “Drinking from the Fire Hose: Making Smarter Decisions Without Drowning in Information” not only has a huge audience today, but likely always will – because the future shows no signs of slowing down.

The trouble is, what they say isn’t particularly revolutionary. It’s smart. It makes sense. It even seems practical. But there’s nothing about their advice that any of us couldn’t figure out on our own – if we weren’t up to our necks in work, that is. There isn’t much here that hasn’t been drilled into our heads by the kind of time management consultants that companies love to bring in for half-day seminars that invariably just push us further and further behind on the projects we’re working on.

“Drinking from the Firehose” begins by identifying the seven basic questions you need to ask yourself about the information you face – and then explores those questions in a series of chapters that make up the rest of the book. What, for example, is the question essential to your business? Or what is the most important thing to your customer? Or what about the information surprised you – and why? All good questions to ask, and all good questions to be reminded to ask, but really, is there anyone reading this who has ever thought to themselves “Hey! It never occurred to me to think about what my customer wants!”

I certainly hope not.

Perhaps the most extreme example of this is the exploration of the seventh question – “What?, So What?, and Now What?”. For Frank & Magnone, when you ask these questions, not only will you avoid the kind of information paralysis we’re all too familiar with, but you will also be able to separate out the information you don’t need more quickly.

That’s because not every piece of information can justify that second “So What?” question – which essentially asks “why is this important to what we’re trying to accomplish here?” (a question that, obviously, has a lot of backstory – and therefore a lot of other questions – to it).

Think about the amount of information you could dismiss if the person clogging up your day couldn’t tell you why what they’re telling you is both relevant AND important. It’s probably measureable in metric tons.

And that last question – “Now What?” – also known as “what do we do now that we know what we know?” Again, a question that has a lot of backstory implied in it (do you change personnel? Distribution? Product? Price?) – and hopefully a question for which the answer is not “let’s have another meeting.”

But again, these are not new questions. They’re the kinds of questions that any sensible person in business – that any sensible person in anything, actually – should be asking themselves every minute of every day.

And while “Drinking from the Firehose” supports its exploration of these questions with the kind of case studies you’d expect to find in a good business book, because what they’re explaining feels so obvious, the case studies start to feel like padding. Like “Fire Bad – and here are three case studies about fire being bad”.

That’s not to argue against the basic advice here. It’s good advice. But it’s basic advice. It’s stuff you know. And if you’re as busy as the authors think you are, the last thing you need is to spend your time learning stuff you already know.

That’s what work is for…

Drinking from the Fire Hose was published by Portfolio/Penguin on 9/1/11 – order it from Amazon here or from Barnes & Noble here – or pick it up at your local bookseller ( find one here). 

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