Why are we afraid of simplicity?

Or, if you like provocative titles, DEATH TO THE 300-SLIDE DOCUMENT!

“There are two kinds of smart people. Those who make simple things complicated and those who make complicated things simple.” source.

No one enjoys reading 300-page presentations. No one wants a task to take four times longer than it needs to. Yet this is still how many consultants and consultancies make their money. It’s also what companies hiring said consultants continue to expect. It’s madness. It’s wasteful. Why does it still happen?

Because insanely long documents and explanations achieve a few things:

  1. They appear to justify cost
    Look how much STUFF there is. Boy did you get the platinum service.
  2. They mask uncertainty 
    When you use 1000 words to explain something, you escape having to actually understand which bit matters. “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” — Einstein
  3. Thoroughness is reassuring
    This must be good work because every stone has clearly been turned!
  4. It looks familiar
    In other words, it looks like other presentations, so this is just be the way things are.
  5. Complexity creates Stockholm Syndrome
    When things are over-intellectualised, they develop a power over people that don’t fully understand all the details. They are impenetrable, overbearing and yet somehow impressive. The recipient begins to think they need the author to stick around to help them navigate the complexity; to protect them from it, standing by to decipher things again when it all gets too much.

The truth is that it’s easy to deliver a business strategy in 300 slides. It’s really, really, really hard to do it in three slides. But it’s the 3-slide version that should be valued more, because it’s far more useful.

As someone that gets hired for his strategy and communications skills, I’m always asking myself: can this be said more simply? I’ve had that Einstein quote in my head for years and whenever I can’t say something simply, I tell myself that I’ve not yet worked it out.

[Long blog post for someone championing simplicity, Andy. Cough.]

Since starting out as a consultant in 2017, I’ve been delivering brand and business strategies in the shortest time I possibly can. My record is three days, although I don’t recommend doing it that quickly. I’ve also been challenging myself to express them in as few words as possible. And I’ve been trying to demystify the process for people as I go. Because I don’t want them to think I’m clever, I want them to find me useful.

The most useful answers are simple. The most useful tools and models are simple. The hard, complicated part is making them so.

But this also requires more people get comfortable with simplicity. Which means getting comfortable with your own knowledge and intelligence gaps. There’s nowhere to hide when you boil things down to their simplest components. No long sentences to hide in; no big words to dazzle with. You can either do it or you can’t, and if you can’t, well, you’ve read the Einstein quote. You better keep battling on until you can. It’s gruelling, but it’s also cathartic. And once you’ve been doing this for a while, you’ll look back at the 300-page documents and wonder how you put up with it.

Some of the things I do in my commitment to simplicity:

  1. Articulate brand/business strategies in four short, simple statements: Context; Problem; Solution; Impact. So it’s unmistakably clear and sharp.
  2. Use ‘normal person words’ so I can’t hide behind ambiguous concepts or jargon.
  3. If I don’t know something, I’ll say “I don’t know.” And then I’ll try to find out. Instead of waffling on in circles.
  4. I boil down company purpose strategies into a short, simple check-list, so it’s easy for employees to incorporate it into their work. (Even though the aching simplicity of this fills some people with fear.)
  5. I challenge my clients to say things more simply too, so we can collectively expose ourselves to what we do and don’t know — and then tackle it together.

The only way this culture will change is if more people hiring consultants get comfortable with simplicity, start to demand it, and start to value it above complex answers too. It’s scarier. It’s harder. But it’s far more useful and far more rewarding. Because when you get to the answer, you can actually see it, share it and have people remember and understand it.

Don’t know where to start? Here’s an easy hack: 
Instead of the appendix being 5% of the deck, ask for it to be 95% of the deck. Deliver the work in the first 5% and have the background thinking at hand if it’s required. If you can’t say it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.

Who wrote this post?

Andy Whitlock helps startups (mostly) to work out what they are trying to do, and creates tools to implement this across their business. He does this through his consultancy The Human Half and likes talking about himself in third person.

Nice things his clients have said…
(You may want to look away if self-promotion makes you cringe):

“Within a week Andy managed to lock down years of vague opinions, thoughts and feedback and convert them into a clear, achievable framework we used to drive our whole rebrand project.” 
 — James McGregor, CEO, Biteable

“Andy got under the skin of our brand with pretty staggering speed. In just a handful of days he brought clarity to our brand strategy and explored its application with real inspiration and creativity. I don’t know how he does it.”
 — Ben Farren, CEO, Spoke

“Not only is Andy one of the best strategic thinkers around — he brings to the table a brilliant mix of creativity, long-term vision and operational business nous. I cannot recommend him enough.”
 — Asi Sharabi, CEO, Wonderbly

“Andy is a bit of a genius. He has an incredible ability to listen to what you and your company are trying to say and then say it back to you one hundred times more concisely and effectively.”
 — Nick Marsh, CPO, Wonderbly


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