Making Strategy Simple

How do you talk about your business's strategy so that your employees get it? Well, you've probably heard the phrase "Keep it simple, stupid." And often the subtext of that is: "Keep it simple, because your people are stupid." But the point of simplicity isn't to dumb things down. You're not trying to solve a comprehension problem. You're trying to solve a problem called decision paralysis.

Decision paralysis is a finding from psychology that says that the more choices we have, the more likely we are to freeze up and go with the path of least resistance. Here's one simple study: At a grocery store, there was a table where customers could sample 24 different kinds of jams. It was a big hit. Another day, there was a similar table with only 6 kinds of jams. It wasn't quite as popular. But here's the twist: When they counted up how many jars of jam sold, the table with only 6 jams outsold the one with 24 jams 10-to-1. When you've got 24 options, it's just too hard to choose. That's decision paralysis.

Think about the tensions in your business that could cause decision paralysis. Trust me, they're a lot worse than choosing between strawberry jam and boysenberry: You've got tradeoffs between serving customers and minimizing costs. Revenue growth versus maximizing profitability. Product quality versus speed to market. Fold together lots of these tensions and you've got a surefire recipe for paralysis. So what do you do?

Get simple. I met a guy named Hoover Adams who founded the Dunn Daily Record--the local newspaper in Dunn, North Carolina. It's one of the most successful newspapers in the country--on average, every household buys 1.12 copies of the Daily Record. Apparently some couples have a hard time sharing. So I asked Adams what his secret was, and he said he'd had the same strategy for 40 years. It boiled down to three things: names, names, and names. What he meant was that, every day, he demands that his staff feature as many people from Dunn as possible. Adams will literally flip through the paper and count the names. And his point is: Look, we can't compete with USA Today or the Washington Post. What we can do that nobody else can is tell you what your neighbors are up to. So, if you're an editor choosing between a beautiful photo of the local park at sunset or a really boring photo of 9 people around a conference room table, which are you gonna publish? The boring one, because it lets you mention nine names in the caption.

With the "names, names, names" mantra, Hoover Adams is helping his people make decision the same way that he would. And that's the value of simplicity--it helps to break up the decision paralysis your employees face and ensure that everyone is rowing the same direction.

For more on this topic: Start here, with the column my brother and I wrote about making your strategy simple enough to be actionable. For more depth, see the Simple chapter of Made to Stick--it includes the full story of the Dunn Daily Record ("names, names, names"). We also wrote a free piece called "Talking Strategy," which discusses the importance of clear internal strategic communication. For more on decision paralysis, check out Barry Schwarz's excellent book The Paradox of Choice. Sheena Iyengar of Columbia is the pioneer of research on decision paralysis.

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