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Why Simple Is Powerful

Can you name one piece of legislation that you fully understand? Can you really say that you understand the nuances of any major news story? How about your agency or company – do you have a pretty good grasp of how it works, and where it’s headed in the future?

For most of us, the answer is no. Not because we are lacking in information. Rather it’s because we’re drowning in it. And we cannot sift the valuable stuff from the crap.

In the age of more words, more functionality, more choices, more signs, more tools, 24/7/365 and instant gratification, a little simplicity is truly sanity. We don’t need to know everything, we don’t want to know everything, just give us the bottom line. Otherwise we are illiterate and illiterate people lack power.

This week I was fortunate to hear a talk by from the authors of the new book Simple: Conquering the Crisis of Complexity, brand consultants Alan Siegel and Irene Etzkorn.

The thesis of the book is that simplification is not only about doing communication better, but more fundamentally about the consumers’ right to understand, make sense of, “own” their world.

In that sense the authors are kind of like crusaders, fighting the various self-interested parties who use complexity to boggle the mind into submission.

It’s a struggle, said Siegel:

• “People entrenched in doing complex things to everyday people are threatened by anything new or that reduces their apparent worth or value, and that goes for doctors and lawyers and people in all professions.”

• “Very often subject matter experts view it (complexity) as a badge of honor – they don’t realize they’re speaking only to themselves.

That is why change in favor of simplicity requires aggressive advocates from the top down:

• "We have never had success without the leaders of a company or government agencies supporting it, believing it, and living it.”

Those leaders must do more than just make nice speeches about change:

• “Working with a company, product, or service that’s complex and dysfunctional means that you’re probably going to have to fire people, change vendors, redo your computer system, and it creates a lot of change and change is difficult for organizations.”

• “If you don’t have a champion willing to face it, make hard decisions, fund it, you're not going to be successful."

Leaders don’t just decide to simplify things out of nowhere. Rather, they are pressured into taking the risk of turning the ship around by impending crises – loss of market share, customers not paying bills, complaints in social media. Either way, once the decision to simplify the offering is made the process of doing so is relatively straightforward:

• Principle #1 – Empathy: Understand the user’s “real world” context and design to that.

• Principle #2 – Distillation: Boil it down, and down again as if you were using a filter, and extract the essence of the meaning.

• Principle #3 – Clarification: Make the product even easier to understand, use and benefit from.

The team has done a lot of work for the government and Etzkorn took the time to point out that complexity does not necessarily have to go away completely. Rather, the underlying structure behind it should be ordered and rationalized. Not all of it is actually necessary.

More importantly, she said, you must hide any convolutedness from the end user. Just because some complexity has to be there, does not mean that the customer should be burdened with it.

I really liked what Siegel and Etzkorn had to say. It wasn’t so much that the products they showed were beautiful or that the writing was clearly easier to read (although it was).

Rather it was their humanistic vision that really struck a chord with me. In the end simplicity is important because it sets a person free from their “learned helplessness” in the face of all this clutter.

“Complexity is a thief that must be apprehended. It robs us of time, patience, understanding, money and optimism.”

In the end simplifying our products and our organizations is not just a nice thing to do. Rather it is fundamental to freedom, empowerment and choice. The average person must be able to make sense of their world quickly, in order to make meaningful decisions and fight back against those who would take advantage of them. I hope the book sells well, and that their “simplicity” movement catches on.

* As always all opinions are my own.

The Data & The Truth

Photo by Theophilos Papadopolous via Flickr

We are so obsessed with "data." But too often we don't really know what to do with it, or how to evaluate its worth.

Sometimes we look at garbage and decide it's data. Because it kinda, sorta looks like data and is presented in a data-like fashion -- it is packaged or branded the right way, so to speak.

Data can be garbage on three levels:
  • The data itself - by which we mean the number, usually - it can be wrong or irrelevant.
  • The methodology surrounding the collection of that data - the "how" - e.g. biased survey questions, a non-generalizable sample
  • The social context dictating the methodology - the relationships that determine how "quality" data is defined, who is qualified to collect it, and so on - e.g. whether the research is "sponsored" by a corporate brand or whether the larger social structure is sexist or racist in its assumptions

We use junk data all the time to make judgments -- online polls of "TV viewers" and "American adults" and so on. How do we know who these people are, what their ages really are, what the randomization of the sampling was, and whose interest the results serve? We don't...and rarely does the average person check the fine print.

It isn't all that hard to manipulate data if you want to score points on a political issue. Just find a hot-button topic that you want to promote, survey people sympathetic to your point of view, and publish the results as "fact."

Discussions of data tend to make me think about gender, race and class, and how different the facts look depending on your perspective. Recent research shows, for example, that Holocaust researchers initially overlooked the mass rape of Jewish women during the war, and even now some still dispute how widespread it was, because women did not talk about it.

The problem has to do with methodology. Helene Sinnreich notes in her research article, "And it was something we didn't talk about" (2009) that in early interviews, female Holocaust survivors did not volunteer this information. However, when they were specifically asked about it much later on, they did. The women were shamed into silence, by their religious culture, by their families, and finally by their own personal psychologies. Some women told others what had happened only to face outright disbelief. The passage of time, the death of these women's husbands, a more supportive social environment, and the researchers' direct questions all led women to share the truth -- e.g., the methodology and the social context changed to yield better data.

I have been thinking about this question of data vs. truth for a long time and want to challenge the notion that the two are equivalent to one another. Data is only a fragment of a much larger picture, just like a leaf is a fragment of a tree. I can look at the larger picture and extract pieces of data, but I cannot look at data alone and assume that I know anything.

* As always, all opinions are my own.

Internal Branding: Three Documents You'll Need

Most organizations inaccurately see internal branding as a process of indoctrination when in fact is is about leadership and management. They underestimate the employees' need and capacity to think and be engaged. In reality, internal branding should bring the following three things together so that employees understand how to work effectively:
  • Culture: All employees understand the mission, vision and core values and how these translate into the work environment.
  • Consistency: The operation runs according to a defined set of standards that all must adhere to.
  • Communication: There is a method of self-expression that is unique to the organization, e.g. you can tell the "brand voice" when you hear it.
For each of these elements the organization should have a defining document that employees can refer to, whether they're new to the organization or veterans; whether they're "clued in" to what's happening at the top or relatively outside the loop.

Most organizations have these documents but don't put them together. The culture document, if it exists, belongs to Human Resources and is part of "new employee orientation." The style guide belongs to the Public Affairs team or Corporate Communications. And the strategic plan - has anybody seen or used that?

The documents should be in writing but they would optimally be made available in a variety of formats including slides, videos, posters, wallet cards, and so on to enable people to access the information in the way that works for them. These are:

  • An Introduction to Our Culture (Culture): This document lays out the collective identity. It should include the mission, vision and core values as well as any norms of behavior that would not otherwise be clear. Examples: Valve Handbook for New Employees and "Netflix Culture: Freedom & Responsibility," the Netflix handbook.
  • Annual Strategic Plan (Consistency): 
    • Consistency is not just about wearing the McDonald's uniform (so to speak) or saying "Have I offered excellent customer service" on every phone call. These are truly the most robotic aspects of the low-hanging fruit. Rather it is about helping employees sing from the same song sheet in terms of their actual work activities.
    • To support this, there should be a central document that lays out what the organization is trying to achieve, at least for the next year, and the basic strategies it is using to get there. This document helps employees align their day-to-day work activities to the more abstract goals.
    • It also keeps senior leadership in line in terms of the specific initiatives to be pursued, way in which initiatives are pursued, the kinds of technologies to be used and the approach to technology that will be incorporated, and so on.
  • Communication Guidelines (Communication): This document is a combination of messaging guide, style guide, and toolkit. It tells you "how we talk," what we talk about, what concepts to emphasize, and so on. The more context people have upfront, the more of a shared framework they can operate in and the more effective collaboration will be.
When employees have these documents available, they have a framework within which to make good decisions about the matters that can't be anticipated in advance. The point is that you do not want them starting from scratch on every project, but you don't want to overprescribe either.

As alluded to above under "Annual Strategic Plan," optimally the documents are really just the end point of a management structure that is also built to support the brand. What this means is that:
  • Leadership from the top down behaves in a way that supports the organization's norms and values (Culture). For example, recruitment, promotion, and even removal from the organization are in line with the organization's values. The governing philosophy about leadership and what it means in the organization can be included in the cultural playbook. 
  • The strategic plan is well-thought-out (not just an exercise) and adhered to (Consistency). Strategic plans are notoriously shelfware because they are treated as an exercise and then abandoned for convenience. In a more helpfully managed organization, the strategic plan is the equivalent of the Bible, one year at a time (more than that is unrealistic). A single, clear, centralized policy supports a single, clear approach to the division of labor and responsibility. A philosophy of technology and specific goals are offered, so that all are collaborating maximally and on the number of platforms that work best. The organization may even be reorganized in support of the strategic plan.
  • Communication is clear, focused, simple and directed at appropriate audiences (Communication). There is sufficient investment in the communication function and it is centralized, rather than having individual communicators diffused among disparate points of contact. The strategic plan is diffused to all audiences in an appropriate way so that each can contribute to organizational goals. Note that this bullet point does not refer to the communication guide but rather to the overarching approach to communication itself.
The key thing to keep in mind in all of this is that you can't create a brand using a cookie-cutter, but it cannot be a free-for-all either. Additionally it is not necessary for everyone to "like" the brand. What matters is that they understand it, and can choose either to get on the train or leave the station.
Limiting choice is one of the benefits of branding that few understand but that the world's best brand consultants know is axiomatic. See Allen Adamson's Brand Simple or Simple: Conquering the Crisis of Complexity by Siegel & Etzkorn.
  • Outer limits: Though we live in a world of unlimited choice and instant gratification, for the brand to be effective as an organizing principle it has to have boundaries that say what is acceptable and what is not. And those boundaries have to be very basic, compelling, unique, understandable and enforced.
  • Room to innovate: At the same time, when the brand is too prescriptive it becomes boring, stale and unengaging, with no role for the employee to add any value using their independent judgment and creativity.
  • Balancing act: Therefore, the balance occurs between a general framework or approach that everyone understands, and a set of limited choices that enable people to try new things and cope with the unexpected.
At the end of the day, the brand is not the goal in and of itself but an instrument through which organizational results are to be achieved. When you give people a framework within which they can achieve those results successfully -- without having to guess and without being micromanaged -- both they and the organization benefit from the efficiency and productivity realized.
Plus they go home from work a lot happier, and are less likely to kick the dog.

* As always all opinions are my own.