Beware of the Leopard Lessons

Beware of the leopard

In the book Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, there’s a vignette called ‘Beware of the Leopard’ which explains why it’s critical to provide convenient access to important information. The vignette is a useful way to explain information asymmetry, in which one person has relevant information not known by or available to the other person. Here’s the conversation between Arthur Dent and the Council Official, Mister Prosser, who wanted to demolish Arthur’s house to make way for a bypass:

Prosser: “But Mr. Dent, the plans have been available in the local planning office for the last nine months.”

Dent: “Oh yes, well, as soon as I heard I went straight round to see them, yesterday afternoon. You hadn’t exactly gone out of your way to call attention to them, had you? I mean, like actually telling anybody or anything.”

Prosser: “But the plans were on display…”

Dent: “Ah! And how many members of the public are in the habit of casually dropping around the local planning office on an evening?”

Prosser: “Er – ah.”

Dent: “It’s not exactly a noted social venue is it? And even if you had popped in on the off chance that some raving bureaucrat wanted to knock your house down, the plans weren’t immediately obvious to the eye, were they?”

Prosser: “That depends where you were looking.”

Dent: “I eventually had to go down to the cellar!”

Prosser: “That’s the display department.”

Dent: “With a flashlight”

Prosser: “Ah, well, the lights had probably gone.”

Dent: “So had the stairs.”

Prosser: “But look, you found the notice, didn’t you?”

Dent: Yes, yes I did. It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet, stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying Beware of the Leopard.

As with the amusing Three Envelopes story, this vignette provides plenty of examples of how not to handle information. Here are my top three lessons:

1. Publicize in addition to publish

I’m a huge proponent of writing stuff down (WSD), especially in organizations steeped in traditions or with long-tenured employees. Relying on tribal knowledge limits an organization’s ability to grow.

It’s not enough to document something; you have to go out of your way to talk about it. Otherwise it’s the proverbial tree falling in the forest. Spend just as much time publicizing information as you do documenting it.

2. Make it easy for your customer, not for you

Planning documents aren’t for members of the planning department but rather for the public. Unfortunately, in many disciplines, documents are filled with jargon and acronyms which experts understand but casual readers do not.

Access to information is another situation in which end-to-end customer experience is critical. Design should be outside-in to make it easy for the customer; otherwise information is locked in the basement.

3. Think digital first

Hitchhiker was written in 1979 in a pre-internet world. Documentation was almost exclusively paper-based and stored in filing cabinets. Information was power so those who controlled information had the most power.

Democratization of information shifts the power from those who create information to those who consume it. Like all things digital, it also gets rid of the middleman.

In a digital-first world, the person who has the most power isn’t the one who controls the most information but rather the one who uses that information to help the most other people. People with real power never force anyone to beware of the leopard.

, ,

5 Responses to Beware of the Leopard Lessons

  1. Patti Fletcher October 26, 2020 at 5:19 am #

    This is an excellent piece; simplifying the complexity of the power of information in multiple respects. All of it depends on this knowledge: “Democratization of information shifts the power from those who create information to those who consume it.“

  2. Bob McGlynn October 26, 2020 at 1:21 pm #

    Even with the internet, it is still possible to “hide in plain sight”. How you create a title and short description –which is what Google is looking, based on what the person inputs. So if the council had the title. “Properties Affected by Bypass Plans” would certainly be better than “Bypass Plans” and “Cottington Properties Affected by Bypass Plans” (Cottington was where Arthur Dent lived). Even then, Arthur Dent would have to be actively searching for it or some neighbor would have to alert them.
    That’s the public sector. The private sector uses the doublespeak of legalese and volumes of text to hide significant changes in service agreements, which is the equivalent of hanging a “Beware the Leopard” sign at the top of service agreements.

    • J. Wrighten September 18, 2023 at 10:22 am #

      Indeed. And, hence the need for multitudinous public bulletin boards; folks handing out important information in key locations, and, independent journalism.

  3. Michael Lewis December 11, 2020 at 8:31 pm #

    I recently encountered the “Beware of the Leopard” defense when querying our local Board of Supervisors about toxic contamination of a proposed development site for affordable housing.

    The supervisor stated that the information about the contamination had been publicly available for more than a year. When I searched for the information I found it on a document website of a consultant to the subcontractor of a contractor hired by the agency that was seeking to purchase the site from the county for the development project. It is “publicly available” to anyone with e skills, equipment, time and desire to spend four hours searching the internet to find it.

    “You hadn’t exactly gone out of your way to call attention to them, had you? I mean, like actually telling anybody or anything.”

    • Jonathan Becher December 12, 2020 at 2:24 pm #

      A fantastic example of the effect. The story could only be more appropriate if the consultant’s last name was Leopard

Leave a Reply