3.1. Gather the Information

Diagram 3.1: TINA’s Thinking sector

As we saw in the introduction (see Chapter 1), the management steering wheel is composed of four activities: Thinking, Implementing, Numbering and Analysing, otherwise known as TINA. This is a way of managing that works in most situations and we’re going to go through it in detail in the next few chapters, starting with Thinking.  As you can see from Diagram, 3.1, each activity (the boxes) has an input and an output, with each output becoming the input to the next activity. There are four activities and four inputs/outputs forming the wheel. For ease of reference, we’ll call each group of input—activity—output a sector.


Why start with Thinking, you ask? Well, although TINA is a circle, it’s not difficult to work out why thinking about something before you set about doing it is a wise course of action. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, ‘Fail to plan, plan to fail’, and planning is all about thinking, so we’ll play it safe and start by doing some Thinking.


TINA’s Thinking sector concerns how you take information from inside and outside of your business and use it to do the thinking necessary to plan what you have to do to get your business to where you want it to be. How do you know who’ll buy what you’re intending to sell? How are you going to create your goods and services? How can you tell if your business is doing well? You need to be doing a lot of thinking to produce the plans necessary to help your business survive, which is why an alternative name for this type of thinking is planning. Planning produces plans; who’d have guessed it?


TINA prompts us to think before we leap and the result of our thinking is a plan; the better the thinking, the better the plan. As the primary function of management is to make informed decisions (see Chapter 2), and if you aren’t making informed decisions then your aren’t doing ‘good thinking’, the better the information you use, the better will be the decisions that you make. However, don’t forget that the fact that you have a responsibility to make decisions does not mean that you are the all—knowing font of all knowledge! Getting at that vital business information requires you to determine which information is critical and from where you can get hold of it.


Making decisions that are informed (based on information) is the best way to avoid making disastrous decisions. The more important the decision the greater the value (however you want to define value) with which it is associated and the greater the need to get that decision right. For example, deciding which chocolate bar to buy at the shop has a fairly low value to it, so go for whatever you fancy. If you get the decision wrong, there’s only you who’s going to be disappointed and there are few additional consequences. However, if you are looking at recruiting a team of salespeople, then the situation is different. High value decisions, those with potentially high costs if you get them wrong, must be based on high value, accurate information.


Getting hold of the necessary information is critical to good decision making, but be aware that the flip—side of this coin is called ‘analysis paralysis’. This is where people spend so long getting hold of the information that they need, or wait for just a little bit more information, that the decision is put—off and put—off until the time when making that decision would have been useful has passed. Thinking is important, but so is the rest of TINA. Your priority within your business must be to get hold of sufficient information and then make those all—important decisions.

Fail to plan, plan to fail

Nowadays, there are many sources of information that could be useful to your business thinking (planning), information that could make the difference between survival and failure. Indeed, there is so much information available now that you could spend your whole life just reading and listening.


But spending your entire working day reading isn’t likely to ensure that your business survives, so you have to determine what information is really important to you. Information comes from two broad sources: information from outside your business and information from within your business. Let’s look at the external sources first.


External sources of information include the obvious, e.g., consultants, customers, social media, etc., and the more frequently overlooked, like industry guidelines, conferences, suppliers, etc. One source of information that is used regularly by the majority of business owners is social media, but this raises a serious question when you are engaged in your information—hunting activities; how reliable is the information that you are accessing?


In business, we are all busy and time is limited, so we have a tendency sometimes to do what is expedient over what is most appropriate. Social media is very easy to access, you don’t even have to get off your backside if you have a mobile device in your hand, but the quality of the information to which you gain access may not be the highest. It is a truism that you get what you pay for and the best information can take considerable effort to acquire and may even involve incurring some financial costs.


Table 3.1 lists some potential external sources of information in order of increasing ease of access, and an assessment of the quality of the information to be gained. There are some broad assumptions being made here, so don’t take this information as definitive, I’m merely try to make a point.

Consultants Medium to hard, depending on what you want to know High for a given area of consultant expertise
Experts from academia Medium to hard, depending on what you want to know High, but potentially removed from everyday business experiences
Conferences Easy to hard, depending on your industry Potentially very high, on the forefront of knowledge, latest developments
Standards and guidelines for your industry Easy to medium, depending on your industry Highest — nationally and internationally documented best practice
Advisors from government agencies Easy to medium High, these people have the nation’s best interest at heart
Customers Easy to access, but getting them to answer your questions might be harder Very high as it applies to their experience of your products and services
Suppliers Easy High as it applies to the use of the products and services that you purchase within your industry
Social media Easiest Variable and potentially driven by opinion

Table 3.1: Potential external sources of information for your business

Right, so you can see that the easiest information to access (social media) is the most variable in its quality. Now I’m not saying that there isn’t some really useful stuff on the internet, but you have to take some care. Anyone can proffer advice given the anonymity of the internet. They may be genuine in their opinions, but those opinions will be coloured by their experiences. Looking carefully at these kinds of sources of information is vital if you are to determine which best suits your requirements.


And now to turn the screw; once you’ve sorted out which sources you are going to use, you must determine how often you are going to use them. Yes, you’re going to have to schedule in the checking of these sources to your working day. You see the world moves regardless of whether you are paying attention or not and you’ll increase the chances of your business surviving if you see the failure abyss in time to avoid driving into it! Indeed, the more time that you have to think about how you are to avoid failure, the more time that you have steer a course to survival.


So, having identified from where you want to obtain your external information, you now have to plan into your calendar the time necessary to keep checking those sources of information on a regular basis. Yes, I know you are busy, but if you don’t make time to acquire the information required to do your management thinking and make your informed decisions, then you are increasing the likelihood that your business will go the way of the dinosaurs. The business environment will change, your competitors will know about it and you won’t because you couldn’t find the time to keep abreast of what was happening outside your office.


And now the balm; you don’t have to do it all yourself. The acquisition of, checking of and thinking about the information is something that someone else can do for you. You never have to work in isolation and good managers learn to delegate. You are the one who has to make the decisions with the greatest value in your business, and as time is limited, the only way that you are going to find time to do that is by asking other members of your team to take care of the lower value thinking and decision making.


Setting up a system that ensures that your sources of information are identified and checked by someone (it doesn’t have to be you) on a regular basis is straightforward. For this, and future examples, we’ll use a generic manufacturing business, let’s call it Generic Boxes Ltd, or GBL for short. They produce cardboard and plastic boxes (surprise, surprise) and have customers throughout Europe. Imagine that the managers at GBL have decided that they have only three critical sources of external business information, and they’ve established a system for reviewing them on a regular basis (see Table 3.2).


The Guild of Master Box Makers Weekly review of appropriate website(s) Operations Manager
Leslie Smith, Business Growth Advisors from the Government Monthly meeting at GBL’s office Managing Director
Customers Quarterly satisfaction questionnaire Sales Manager

Table 3.2: Generic Boxes Ltd’s external information review schedule


Download a template here

Download your template here
When you have filled in your template, click on the briefcase to store the document and add any notes about it in your notebook.

From the table, it can be seen that there are three sources of information that have been assessed as critical and GBL has set up the following review systems for each:


  • Their first source of critical business information is The Guild of Master Box Makers. This body is their industry trade association and provides lots of useful advice and assistance specific to the industry of manufacturing cardboard and plastic boxes. The Operations Manager has been given the responsibility to review the content of the trade association’s website to keep abreast of new developments. Due to the rate with which things change in their industry, e.g., recycling legislation, the challenge of cheap imports from oversees, etc., GBL has decided to check out the Guild’s website at least once—a—week.
  • Their second source of information is Leslie Smith, their assigned Business Growth Advisor from local government. Leslie has a focus on manufacturing and advises many local businesses on various diverse business topics like available funding schemes, export assistance, provision of useful contacts, etc. The Managing Director of Generic Boxes Ltd has arranged for Leslie to visit him once a month for a briefing.
  • Their third source is their customer base. Understanding the needs and expectations of the customers ought to be every business’s priority and the Sales Manager has devised a short questionnaire to measure customer satisfaction. They have chosen a subset of their most important customers and send out the questionnaire on a quarterly basis.

So, within your own business, identify your critical sources of external information (not too many, in the first instance) and make sure that you have a way of getting them reviewed, evaluated and updated on a regular basis. You don’t want to be blinded by the dust kicked—up by the other, better managed businesses behind whom you are trailing, do you? No, so make sure that you get your information channels established. This way you’ll be at the forefront of developments in your industry and not dragging your feet along at the back. Being at the back is not a good way to survive the race to business success.


There is a wealth of information about your business sitting within your organisation. The people in your team(s) that actually do their jobs on a day—to—day basis are pretty useful when it comes to getting information about how your business is operating. Their skills and their previous experience may be of great benefit to you if you only think to ask them for their advice. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that just because you own the business you also ‘own’ all the knowhow; that way lies failure. Yes, you might be a terrific engineer, accountant, advisor, teacher, whatever, but just because you’re a ‘God in your own universe’ doesn’t mean that you’re a God in someone else’s. Listen to what your people are saying.

Two ears, one mouth. Use them in that ratio

Compared to external information, getting hold of the information from within your business should be easy. If it isn’t, then your need to make it easy as fast as possible. Failing when you’ve tried your best using the very latest information that you can get your hands on is one thing (and it happens), but failing when the information that you needed was there, staring you in the face, is just stupid. Not organising a route to access that information is a fast road to the failure abyss.


When compared to external sources of information, all your internal sources are of the highest quality. I don’t mean, necessarily, that your Sales Director is the best Sales Director on the planet, I mean that the information that he/she can provide is perfectly formed for your business because it originates from, and is specific to, your business.


So, how do you get at all this easy—to—access, high—quality information then? Easy, you ask for it. Depending on which information you want to get at, you can either get people to write it down and then review their report, or you can meet with the appropriate people and ask them the questions to which you need the answers.  We’ll touch on documenting the information that you need (writing stuff down) later, so here we’ll focus on meetings.

Meetings vs. chats

Meetings are a crucial tool in any good manager’s ‘management toolbox’. You may have come across the common management meme that goes ‘You have two ears and one mouth, and you should use them in that ratio’. Good managers listen and understand before they try and make themselves understood. Poor managers seem, more often than not, to be characterised by their colleagues as someone who ‘never listens’. Establishing good routes to your internal information will increase your chances of survival, and meetings or ‘chats’ are a very good way of doing exactly that by providing an opportunity to listen to your team. It’s all about communication, which we’ll cover in Chapter 4: Getting Stuff Done, and a good manager needs some good communication tools.

Planning required Little, it happens Lots. A meeting needs an agenda, an agreed date and time, reports prepared in advance, meaningful contributions from participants, etc.
No. of participants Two or three Two or more, up to about ten at most or efficiency can drop
Duration/ cost Shorter and cheaper Longer and more expensive
Importance Lower, it’s informal, right? Higher, time is money
Frankness/ openness Higher, it’s just between us Lower, everyone present will hear, participants don’t want to look daft
Clarity Lower, distractions abound in the canteen Higher, what is required is discussed, debated and agreed
Emotion Friendly, light, fluffy Intense, concentrated, deep
Direction Potential for topic—drift, ‘Did you see X on the TV last night?’ Agenda—driven with a Chairman or Chairwoman
Records None written, reliant on participant’s memory Contemporaneous notes, written minutes
Actions Possibly Agreed, allocated, timed, SMART targets

Table 3.3: Comparison of the merits of a ‘chat’ and a ‘meeting’


Bear in mind that a ‘meeting’ and a ‘chat’ are two different things, two different tools in your management toolbox, and as a good manager you need to deploy them appropriately. For example, you wouldn’t use a hammer to cut a piece of wood to size now would you? No, because it’s the wrong tool for the job. Similarly, meetings and chats (casual conversations) are different and must be used where appropriate within your business. So, how do these two communication tools compare?


Now, Table 3.3 presents the chat and the meeting as two discrete communication tools, but bear in mind that such divisions are rarely hard and fast. There are many shades of grey in—between and so let’s go through each category in detail to make it easier for you to decide which are the most important for your particular information—acquisition requirements.


  • Planning — the chat can be conducted without any planning at all and it is thus an easy option (remember that ‘easy’ doesn’t mean ‘best’). On the other hand, a meeting must be carefully planned and must use an agenda to ensure that what is important is what gets discussed. It must have an agreed date and time for occurrence, determination of who should be in attendance and what they are to be contributing.
  • No. of participants — a chat tends to have a smaller number of participants; the meeting usually has more, so the chat has a more limited number of direct recipients. The message transmitted in the chat may go no further, whereas the fact that there are actions arising from a meeting (see below) means that those actions will cascade through your business.
  • Duration / costs — chats tend to take up less of everyone’s valuable time, whereas the meeting can be extended (drawn out) to allow time to discuss fully the consequences of actions and obtain agreement on the decisions taken. The people attending the chat or the meeting are being paid and so the longer they take, the more costly is the exercise. Make sure that the cost is worth it.
  • Importance — it is easy for the recipient to treat the chat as of very low importance. ‘If the message was important, then we’d be having a meeting, right?’ In addition, as soon as the recipient turns away from the chat, the message can be lost as the immediate issues concerning that person crowd back into their brain. As a meeting is more formal, and takes up lots of that valuable time, the message being transmitted must be of greater importance. Or, at least, it better be!
  • Frankness / openness — people say things to one person that they would not necessarily reveal/ discuss in the presence of a group.
  • Clarity — as the physical environment in which the chat occurs is uncontrolled, the message can be garbled by distractions. As a meeting usually occurs in a closed, controlled environment, more attention will be paid to the message.
  • Emotion — a chat tends to be friendlier, lighter and less intense than the meeting. This can be good for a quick ‘Thank you’ or an update on activity. Not a good environment for a performance appraisal or a disciplinary hearing!
  • Direction — even though a chat may start on one subject, where it goes is almost anyone’s guess. A formal meeting is driven by an agenda overseen by a Chairman or Chairwoman. The function of the Chair is, amongst other things, to clarify what is to be discussed (the agenda), to guide the discussions along that path and keep things moving, to seek ideas and input from all the participants, and to not let the discussions meander away from what is important. Remember, this meeting is costing you money! If you are the Chair, then show this to be the case by keeping the meeting focussed and summarising what has been agreed.
  • Records — as a chat can easily occur in a location or at a time when access to paper and pen is difficult, records of the meeting are present only within the minds of the participants. People’s memories are curiously nebulous things and it is easy for five people to attend a chat or a meeting and to walk away with five different ideas of what was communicated! This is why minutes are vital when conducting a formal meeting. Remember; if it isn’t written down, then it’s a rumour!
  • Actions — the likelihood of actions occurring after a chat are lower than the likelihood after a meeting, largely because the actions aren’t recorded or measured after a chat. Within your business, you cannot demonstrate that you have control of that which you do not measure. A meeting should produce SMART targets (see Chapter 4: Getting Stuff Done), meaning that the actions will be monitored and measured. Also, bear in mind that if the meeting doesn’t produce actions that result in improvements, then people will, quite rightly, dismiss them as a ‘talking shop’ and cease to engage with them.

So, given that you have decided which sources of internal information are best accessed by using a meeting, you’ll need agendas for those meetings. These agendas do not need to be complicated and, once created, form the ‘script’ for the meeting. And don’t forget that they are easy to change at a later date. What are the benefits of using an agenda? Well, it allows everyone who is attending the meeting to know what is going to be discussed, and most importantly, to be prepared for it. Don’t ask the Finance Director to attend a meeting and then, when you are all sat there, ask her to explain from memory the detailed financial planning that went into your five—year projections! The agenda is also valuable as a tool to keep the meeting on track; remember the cost and don’t waste time in the meeting.


Matters Arising not already on the Agenda This is for any last minute items of which you were not previously aware. Only for items that are appropriate for discussion at this specific meeting.
Operations For discussion of, e.g., work coming in, work going out, turnaround times, resource requirements, etc.
Management System For discussion of, e.g., policies, internal and external documentation, failures and complaints, working conditions and environment, etc.
Targets For discussion of how performance compares to expectation. Also, for discussion of, e.g., KPIs, target setting and review, etc.
Human Resources For discussion of, e.g., competence, training planning, personnel management for absence/ holidays, etc.
Date of the Next Meeting For getting agreement of the next meeting date, so that it is in everyone’s calendars well ahead of time and before they leave the meeting.
Any Other Business This is for any last minute items that spring to mind as a result of the meeting. Only for items that it is important to discuss at this specific meeting.

Table 3.4: Explanation of items on a generic departmental, team or function management agenda


Table 3.4 shows a simple, example agenda that can be used for a management meeting covering almost any department, team or function. The table breaks down the agenda items and provides a brief explanation of why any specific item might be useful to you. This list could be summarised as a formal way of asking:


  • Have we forgotten anything urgent?
  • How are we doing at what’s important and what do we need in addition?
  • How are our support structures doing and what do we need in addition?
  • How are we doing compared to the plan?
  • Do we have sufficient personnel to deliver the plan?
  • When shall we meet again?
  • Anything else urgent?

bviously, you can change the list above as you see fit for each of the meetings that you want to conduct, or you want conducted within your business. Just make sure that the items on the agenda get you the information that you need for your top level, informed, business decision making.

If it’s not written down, it’s a rumour!

Diagram 3.2: Example of a form combining an agenda and its minutes

Now, having established which meetings are going to occur and devised an agenda for each, what’s the easiest way of you capturing the information that they generate? The answer is obvious; write it down. Remember, if it’s not written down, then it’s a rumour! So, ensure that the results of the discussions within the meeting are written down (not in great detail, you don’t have time) and that the actions are recorded.


And the simplest way to ensure that you capture the right information from a meeting, any meeting, is to make the agenda into a form and fill it in as you go. Each item on the agenda then has its own field where the Chair of each meeting (or a minute taker, if you have the resources to spare) can record what occurs. In this way, no agenda item will be forgotten (there’ll be a big empty field sat there to remind you) and the agenda and its minutes will never be separated or lost. Diagram 3.2 illustrates the kind of thing that’ll be useful:



Download a template here

Download your template here

When you have filled in your template, click on the briefcase to store the document and add any notes about it in your notebook.

Be aware that some people really don’t like meetings. This is probably because they have experienced poor managers using the wrong management tool or the right tool, but in the wrong way. Listen out for people saying that they ‘hate meetings’. If you think about it, you’ll realise that such a statement makes no more sense than saying that they ‘hate hammers’! Conduct your meeting when appropriate and in the right way (e.g., using an agenda, with fixed start and finish times, generating actions, etc.) and they will be of tremendous use to you in ensuring your business survives long enough to be successful.


Okay, so you’ve decided which information gathering activities require a meeting, you’ve got your agendas, and you’re ensuring that the information produced from those ‘expensive’ meetings is collected. Now, let’s see how that information can be used to make your thinking really effective and the survival of your business that much more likely.