Why We Dumb Things Down

How to bring richness and rigor back into your workplace

Have you ever prepared something for your boss or leadership only to be told that it was far too complex and needed to be simplified? If so, you’re not alone. Every day millions of strategies, analyses, reports, and emails are reduced to a set of jargon-laced bullet points.

In theory, this sounds like a good idea. Simplicity! You don’t really understand something until you can explain it to a child, right? True, but your leaders and colleagues are not children. And in a dynamic and complex world, few decisions are truly simple. We need deeper understanding and sense-making in order to innovate and break through. Unfortunately, the opposite happens.

And so this:

Becomes this:

  • “Blockchain is a trend we should keep an eye on.”

This phenomenon is part of a recursive loop that leads to a less accurate picture of reality as we move up the hierarchy. In response to that lack of clarity leaders do things that actually make it worse. This all happens through a process I call The Reductionist Loop.

The Reductionist Loop

  1. Leaders are busy. As the primary decision makers (something we’ll circle back to) their days are packed with meetings, pitches, updates, and discussions designed to maximize their reach and influence.
  2. Leaders can’t focus. Because they’re busy, they don’t have time to focus deeply on any one subject. Meetings are sliced into finer and finer chunks (a day of 15 or 30 min meetings is not uncommon). They consistently run over, leading to overlap and stress for everyone involved.
  3. Leaders can’t handle the truth. Because they can’t focus, leaders tend to react poorly to depth, ambiguity, or any issue that requires systems thinking (which is almost every issue that matters). Walk in with a few pages of thoughtful prose and you’ll likely hear, “Just dumb it down for me.” What they mean is, “You clearly understand this better than I do, and I don’t have the time to digest this, so just tell me what you think, and I’ll give you a gut reaction.” This has been exacerbated by the fact that many people are bad communicators. For every recommendation that is rich with informational depth and nuance there are three more that are just poorly conceived and communicated. In response, leaders are increasingly skeptical of dense materials and conversations. Just get to the point.
  4. Leaders see the world in bullet points. Because they can’t handle the truth (the detail), leaders and their subordinates begin to create a culture of brevity that makes complex topics more digestible. They do this under the banner of efficiency and focus, but like everything in the corporate world, it gets taken to the extreme. A sentence like, “Transparency is important because it enables employees to make better decisions and reduces bias while decentralizing power,” becomes, “Transparency is important.” And since the reduction sometimes feels too banal, we spice it up again with corporate jargon like, “Transparency is mission critical.”
  5. Leaders don’t “get it.” Because they only see bullet points and don’t have the time to push for richer conversations, many leaders lack a deep understanding of what’s happening in every part of their business and marketplace. Employees know this, which is why, “Leadership doesn’t get it,” is one of the most popular quotes around the water cooler.
  6. Leaders crave the truth. Because they don’t have all the information, context, and nuance (and yet are expected to make most of the decisions), many leaders grow increasingly hungry for a better picture of reality. They simultaneously wish they could go broad and deep — across the organization and down into the ranks — to see what’s happening and fine tune their mental model. This search for the truth leads them to ask for and accept a broad range of meetings, reviews, and interactions. And so at last we return to the first step of this vicious cycle, where we find our leaders too busy for their own good.

This loop plays over and over again, year after year, as employees move up the ranks — doing this to their boss, and having it done to them. It is both a symptom and a cause of the bureaucratic operating system that drives us crazy. And it has to go.

It’s worth noting that I am not advocating for being overly intellectual or waltzing around with 100+ page PowerPoint decks. That’s the other extreme of the same root cause. I’m talking about a few pages of prose. A Bezos memo. A sophisticated diagram or chart. Asking everyone to read a book on an important topic (like the Blockchain). We should take Einstein’s apocryphal advice, “Make things as simple as possible, but no simpler.”

Amazingly, when we forcibly break the pattern by bringing something deep to the table and asking everyone to make time for it, leaders love it. Wouldn’t you know, they’re brilliant curious people who are craving depth and want to understand the world as much as we do.

Alas, no one has time for this level of exploration on every subject. Which brings us to my final point.

Expecting leaders to make all the decisions leads to bad decisions.

It’s no one’s fault. Modern organizations are so complex that no one, not even Watson, can hold all that complexity in their heads. When all the feedback and insight is at the edge, and all the power is centralized and suffering from the loop I just described, is it any wonder that we are unhappy with the outcome?

If you’re working for a leader, I invite you to try to raise the level of discussion both in what you share and how you share it. You can challenge your leadership to do some deep thinking and learning with you. It just requires time (which you’ll have to fight for), quality of thought (which you’ll have to work for), and confidence (which you’ll have to dig for).

If you are a leader, it’s time to take a closer look at self-organization, distributed authority, and new ways of working that unlock the potential of your people. We’re happy to help.


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