My brother Jimmy was in trouble.

That within itself was not such unique situation, but the circumstances surrounding this incident were suspect. He had been sick, and had to take a make-up test. He had been instructed to take the make-up test in the teachers’ lounge. While taking the test, his teacher was meeting with other teachers, and they were laughing and talking loudly, making it difficult for Jimmy to concentrate on the test.

Jimmy asked the teachers to please be quiet so he could take the test. They agreed, but their conversation once again got louder and louder. The teacher became frustrated with Jimmy (a feeling I know well!) when he asked them to please be quiet a second time, and made him leave the teacher’s lounge, meaning that Jimmy could not complete the test and would get a failing grade.

As explained in a previous blog article, I grew up in a family of three boys, and we were each troublesome in our own ways, to be sure. However, this time it felt like Jimmy got in trouble just for doing what he was supposed to do. My father, ever the sensible judge of character and situation, sensed that something was amiss, and wanted to find a reasonable resolution.

If Jimmy had indeed misbehaved, my father reasoned, then he should be formally punished and sent to the principal’s office. However, if he was just trying to advocate for himself so he could complete his work in a quiet space, then the teacher should apologize to him, and let him take the test again.

I remember feeling amazed. My father had been able to simplify the situation to a single issue. Had Jimmy misbehaved? If so, then he should be punished. If not, then Jimmy should be able to take the test.

This all happened about forty years ago, long before every house had a computer on the kitchen table and a device in everyone’s hand. This was before the days of email, internet and “save as” or “forward to.”

Though we did not have a phrase for it at the time, in a way, my father was looking for the “Single Source of Truth.” The irrefutable, grounding facts that determined this situation, and would determine next steps. As I have been forced to deal with difficult situations through the years, I have often reflected on this situation, when my father was able to make complete sense of a complicated problem in a way that was sensible for everyone involved.

Identify the issue.
Identify the single item that everyone can agree on.
Identify the Single Source of Truth.

Technically speaking, the phrase Single Source of Truth refers to a method of data storage. It is the “practice of structuring information models and associated data schema such that every data element is mastered (or edited) in only one place.”

Complicated though the phrase may sound, you have dealt with this. I promise. You have either had to navigate through a complicated list of files or folders to find the work you need to do, or you have tried to share information with others quickly, probably not realizing that you were making everyone’s job more difficult and complicated, simply because you were attaching a file to an email. It often happens like this…

  1. File is created.
  2. File is saved to desktop.
  3. Email is created to share file with colleagues.
  4. File is attached to email.
  5. Email is sent colleagues.
  6. Colleague reads email.
  7. Colleague opens attached file.
  8. Colleague edits attached file.
  9. Colleague saves new version file to their desktop.
  10. Colleague clicks “Reply All” on original email.
  11. Colleague attaches edited file to new email.
  12. Email is sent, with new edited file, to all.
  13. Process is repeated for all email recipients.

Rarely have so many people engaged in such an ineffective process for so many years, but this is exactly the way so many of us work, each and every day.

If the original file was sent to five different colleagues, this same 13-step process was repeated five times, for a total of 65 steps, resulting in 6 different versions of one file.

Yes, each file might have a different file name, making them easier to differentiate. Yes, each file has a different time and date stamp, making it clear which file was revised last, but which file is correct? Which file has changes that everyone agrees on? Which file reflects changes that were made by others? What is the Single Source of Truth?

Today, my brother does not need to take a test in the teachers lounge, and you don’t need to attach a file to an email. In fact, you should never attach a file to an email.

Today, your work is most likely in the cloud. Most of the work you do is either done online, or it can easily be shared online. Rather than attaching a file to an email, share a link to your file and give permissions to the necessary people to view and edit the file.

With that one change, now your entire team is working with one Single Source of Truth. Now five people are coming to one place rather than one file going to five places, becoming five different files. Now, everyone can see changes in real time, and everyone knows the correct information to be working with.

As needlessly complicated as those 13 steps we all take to attach a file to an email, it is a process we all know well. We know it so well that we barely consider what we are doing when we are doing it. Although it makes much more sense, and takes less time overall, to share a link to a file rather than sharing the file itself, it is something that people rarely do.

Either our colleagues are unaware of the functionality that enables us to easily share a link to a file, or more likely, we all do things so quickly that we don’t even realize we are not working in the smartest, most effective way we can.

Sadly, I don’t remember if Jimmy was sent to the principal’s office, or if he was allowed to finish his test. What I do remember though is my father’s amazing ability to make sense of a difficult situation, and help me to understand how to work more collaboratively and effectively forty years in the future.

PART II: “OK, this is a better way to work, but how do we make that change???” Coming soon.

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