I have a friend who is an American, visiting the U.K. for the first time. He has
been staying with me in Nottingham for 10 days, travelling around using a hire car,
or trains. His flight leaves from Birmingham tomorrow, Monday, and he will drive
the hire car to the airport and leave it there. He asks me,
‘How far is it to Birmingham airport?’
Now the straightforward answer is ‘About 50 miles’. But, in order to ensure this
information is relevant, I need to know the decision which my friend wishes to make.
I add ‘Why do you want to know?’
He answers, ‘My plane takes off at 11:00 a.m., which means I have to be at the airport
at 9:00 a.m. I don’t want to risk being late. When I looked at Google maps puts the
time at less an hour and a quarter.’
I reply, ‘That’s not looking at Google maps at 8:00 in the morning. Unfortunately,
the roads between here and Birmingham consist of several long traffic jams at that
time on a Monday and you need to leave at least two hours in advance, especially
as you have to park the hire car and leave the keys. So I would leave at 7:00’.
This example illustrates the importance of understanding the link between information,
decisions and risks. My friend failed to tell me the decision he had to make, when
to leave, and the risks surrounding the decision, he had to be at Birmingham Airport
at 9:00 on a Monday morning. If I had only answered, ‘About 50 miles’, he could
have missed his plane, or at least have had a worrying journey.
So I answered ‘…at least two hours’ because that was as accurate as I could be. There
would have been no point in answering one hour, fifty-five minutes and twenty seconds
because I couldn’t predict the journey time that accurately and it would give a false
impression of how certain I was of the timing.
When did my friend want the information? Well, he had to know when to leave, so
he would know when to get out of bed – so there would be no point in telling him
the following morning. However, there would be time tonight to check on the road
news to see if there were any road works which would make the journey even longer!
For this reason there would also have been no point in him asking the question two
weeks before he arrived in the UK.
What we didn’t do was spend a long time discussing whether it would take 1¾ or 2
hours to reach the airport. We started at the information known accurately, the
time the plane was to leave and worked back. The best solution? Leave at around
6:30 to beat the traffic and have a leisurely breakfast at the airport.