The more “advanced” the world gets, the more complicated and confusing it gets for all of us. More people, more information, and more options sometimes mean less clarity, less understanding, and less meaning. They say we’re living in the “information age,” but it often feels like the “information overload age.” So it shouldn’t be surprising that information processing now represents one-half of our country’s gross national product.
John Sculley, former head of Apple Computer, once said, “Everything we have learned in the industrial age has tended to create more and more complication. I think that more and more people are learning that you have to simplify, not complicate. Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” Amen.
Sculley’s quote and other words of wisdom are in Jack Trout’s book, The Power of Simplicity: A Management Guide to Cutting Through the Nonsense and Doing Things Right. In it, Trout cites clutter, complexity, and lapses in common sense as the main obstacles to everything from forming the right strategy, to communicating with customers and employees, to being an effective manager.
He illustrates the problem by saying, “Business complexity is fed by the ever-increasing amount of information that is being piped into the business world in as many ways as Silicon Valley can invent. Our minds are like the memory of a computer…and our disks are full.”
Apparently the need to simplify isn’t new. Do you remember a small book by Strunk and White called The Elements of Style? If so, everything you need to know about simplification you may have learned in freshman English. “Omit needless words,” commanded Strunk in 1935. “A sentence should contain no unnecessary words and a paragraph no unnecessary sentences for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.”
Good marketers, like good communicators, know the value of simplification. They keep things simple by doing one thing and doing it well. They have a clear strategy that focuses on a core attribute and then they deliver consistently over time. They build a reputation for excellence in one area and use it to claim dominance in the marketplace. While the core product or service may evolve over the years, a smart company knows it should never stray too far from the original good idea. Volvo knows. Ben & Jerry’s knows. Nordstrom’s knows. Apple knows. Even Hardee’s may be learning.
To create clarity and effectiveness in our organizations, we need to simplify our messages and our strategies. But we also need to do something else: make sense out of the nonsense by creating meaning for people. Margaret Wheatley talks about the importance of knowing the “why” of what’s going on. She writes, “How often have you heard yourself or others say, ‘I just wish they would tell me why we’re doing this?’ We instinctively reach out to leaders who work with us on creating meaning. Those who give voice and form to our search for meaning and help us make our work purposeful are leaders we cherish and to whom we return gift for gift.”
It’s good, but not good enough, to just simplify our plans and our communication. We also need to give meaning and purpose to the work we do. We need to help people understand how what we do relates to their lives, their hopes, and their dreams—not just ours.
This desire to simplify and find meaning isn’t a 21st century phenomenon. It’s been a part of man’s quest since his first days on earth. That’s why explorers explore. That’s why researchers never stop looking for the cure. That’s why we can now search the world for products and information without ever leaving home.
And while most of us have no desire to go back to the horse-and-buggy days (because the “good old days” often weren’t), we strive for balance—a balance between having the right information and being overwhelmed, between leading by the numbers and leading with vision, and between complexity and common sense.
Who knew simplicity could be so hard? IBI