Each month, When Growth Stalls examines why businesses and brands struggle and how they can overcome their obstacles and resume growth. Steve McKee is the president of McKee Wallwork + Co., an advertising agency that specializes in working with stalled, stuck and stale brands. The company was recognized by Advertising Age as 2015 Southwest Small Agency of the Year. McKee is also the author of “When Growth Stalls” and “Power Branding.”
I recently spoke at a conference where leading market research companies gathered to share best practices and ponder the future. As with many industries, talk centered around the need for transformation. The industry is facing threats from new technologies and non-traditional competitors, including prestigious management consulting firms like McKinsey and Deloitte who see in it new sources of revenue and fast-growing online enterprises like Amazon and Salesforce that collect an immense amount of mineable data.
To remain relevant, traditional market research firms that for decades were primarily driven by various forms of survey research now must figure out whether and how to integrate social media analysis, data visualization, predictive analytics, CRM data mining and other disciplines — and do it quickly enough to stay relevant vis-à-vis their new competitors.
It’s an increasingly complex environment that presents a formidable strategic challenge to the leaders of these companies who must sift through the complexity to develop clear new directions for each of their firms.
Managing complexity is a challenge all leaders in business face. Unfortunately, not all of them handle it well. In my most recent book, “Power Branding,” I highlight 75 principles that the world’s best companies leverage to stay on top. Principle No. 21 is simple: “Complexity is the enemy of comprehension.” There seem to be as many “complexifiers” in business as there are “simplifiers,” and which category you fall into may determine your leadership fate.
Think about complexity in the context of, say, a magazine advertisement. We’ve all seen ads (think car dealers, furniture stores, restaurants) that feature a big headline, a bunch of copy and a few bullet points thrown in along with a half-dozen photos, a web address, a physical address and a logo (or two). Ads like this provide readers no focal point and no idea of where to begin. So readers turn the page.
Contrast that with ads that feature, say, a single, compelling image supported by a brief, punchy headline (think Absolut and “Got Milk?”). The simplicity of such an approach enhances comprehension.
But it doesn’t come easy. The hard work of an effective brand-builder is to sift and sort through the multifaceted variables of a company’s industry, customers, competition and every other dynamic and sharpen the brand’s appeal into the tip of a spear with which it can go to market and slay its foes.
What’s true in branding is true in all aspects of business. Why do we hire attorneys, accountants and physicians? To simplify complexity. There are far too many cases in law, regulations in the tax code, and intricacies of the human body for a layperson to comprehend, so we hire people who have spent years learning, understanding and mastering those complexities to manage them for us.
But law, accounting and medicine are all highly-structured, licensed industries where those who would become experts must take the time to climb the long learning curve to arrive at the top of their game. There should be very little that surprises your attorney, accountant or physician.
Not so in other industries, where things continually change — and with increasing velocity. Economic uncertainties roil the best-laid plans. Unanticipated competitors enter the market. New technologies disrupt the way things are being done. Continuous complexity is a fact of life, and a fair way to define a leader is how well he or she manages it.
Complexifiers tend to allow problems, variables, complications and all the things that can go wrong blur their vision. They head down convoluted rabbit trails as each challenge forks into others. They often immobilize themselves and others by ping-ponging from question to question, risk to risk and unknown to unknown. Complexifiers stress people out.
Simplifiers, by contrast, focus on cutting through complexity. They don’t ignore the convolutions of a situation but aren’t intimidated by them. They seek clues. They recognize patterns. They separate the tangential from the consequential.
They understand that just as complex problems can play off one another and create a vicious cycle of destruction, simple solutions can create a virtuous cycle that slays many dragons at once. Simplifiers calm people down.
Petty politicians are notorious complexifiers, providing highly complex answers to simple questions, for example, to obfuscate unpopular (or insufficiently considered) positions. Leaders in business don’t have that option. We must take our cues from great statesmen like Abraham Lincoln, who piloted America through its most traumatic and trying time guided by the simple, powerful idea that “Government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth.”
Or like Ronald Reagan, who overcame a complex issue that had bedeviled America’s foreign policy elite for decades by simply stating, “Here’s my strategy on the Cold War: We win; they lose.” (It should come as no surprise that both men were mocked by the complexifiers of their time.)
The issues US presidents face are anything but simple. But neither are the issues company presidents (or those who wish to become one) face in the information economy. The last thing any organization needs is a manager who adds complexity to complexity . Leaders can’t lead when they’re stuck in the weeds.
Simplifier or complexifier — which are you? An honest look in the mirror may save your company. And your career.