Albert Einstein is credited with saying “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t know it well enough”. This suggests he advocated that every idea be reduced to its core concept and expressed in a way that a layman could grasp.
However, he is also reported as saying “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler”, which suggests that he felt there’s a tipping point beyond which simplicity undermines clarity.
Some people are masters at explaining the difficult simply. Professor Julius Sumner Miller of Sydney University used to be on TV when I was a kid. He had a way of making physics understandable. In my twenties I used to go to a doctor, Adrian Burton, who used metaphors to help patients comprehend what was happening inside their bodies.
Others don’t know how to make something simple. I recall being briefed to create a new advertising campaign for Johnnie Walker in the early 90s. Our client briefed us with the aid of PowerPoint slides – 142 of them. Each slide became progressively denser with text and diagrams. By the 100th slide, the text was down to about 8pt and unreadable. Until that slide, I counted the word paradigm 32 times. I felt I was reading the same information over and over until my eyes glazed over.
People like this are afraid to reduce information to its simplest expression. Usually, it’s because they fear that the information will be devalued by simplicity.
If a committee of 12 deliberates for nine months to produce a report, members will feel that after this time they’ll be expected to deliver something with serious heft.
Even if their topline recommendations can fit on a single page, the report will run to 400 pages. When a 400-page report lands on their desks, those commissioning the report will feel they got value.
And yet, when we view a massive report, what do we do? We go straight to the executive summary. We want the shorthand version, the key findings.
I have a client who creates benchmarking reports for the financial services industry. They are weighty tomes – in keeping with the $30,000+ price tag. The report covers areas such as investment strategy, insurance competitiveness, member communications & governance.
Here’s what happens when the reports are delivered:
The Directors view the Summary – and nothing else. They want an overview of how their business compares with competitors.
The people in the investment strategy part of the organisation want to read that section – but couldn’t care less about insurance or member communications.
The marketing people read the communications section.
The insurance people read that section and no other.
So here’s what we did: we made the report modular. In this way, individual sections could be shared as needed. Nobody gets pages that aren’t relevant to them.
This modular solution was a simple idea. And that’s the key to something new. The first question to ask of any idea is “Is it simple?”
Experts sometimes can’t see the opportunity to simplify because they’re prevented by their egos. They think their peers expect grandiloquence.
Experts often don’t ask simple, naïve questions because to do so somehow betrays their expertise.
I could write more, but I’ll resist.
For those of you who go straight to the Executive Summary, here it is:
Don’t be afraid to simplify. Don’t be afraid to ask naïve questions. Choose quality over quantity.