Let’s not make this more complicated

I used to have sign over my desk that said “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”, but it’s long since fallen off and been cleared away by the cleaners, along with a large number of stray almonds that seem to have a habit of accumulating under my desk.

For years I have struggled to convince people that striving for simplicity is useful and perhaps even ethical. I once told a group of co-workers that it was our moral duty to make safety legislation understandable for business owners and workers. After all, how could we realistically expect people to comply with legislation that they found incomprehensible?

This didn’t always land well. Over the years, many people have accused me of reductionism, of reducing complex ideas to simple one-liners, and whilst I acknowledge that many ideas are complex and nuanced, I still think that when people are being introduced to new ideas and processes you need to start from a point that is simple so that you don’t lose them too early.

I’ve never heard anyone complain that something is too simple.

Much of my current work is centred on building evaluation capability. I think it’s fair to say that many people find evaluation daunting (and sometimes a little boring, although I struggle to see why) and mostly this is because we’ve made it too hard, too complicated, too indecipherable.

We do this by using unfamiliar terminology, and by creating processes, templates and forms that are difficult to understand and hard to use. I’ve seen people going around in circles trying to work out the difference between an outcome and an output, when they should really be focussing on what their program is intended to achieve, and what they might want to know when they’ve finished delivering the program.

I’m not claiming that evaluation isn’t a complex and thoughtful field, I’m just saying that if you want to build capability and confidence, you need to start with the basics. It gets complicated soon enough.

I’m reminded of this every day as I try to mentor my co-worker in the intricacies of evaluation. She wants me to explain (as simply as possible) how things work, and sometimes it’s hard. So much of evaluation revolves around the words “it depends”. I can see the frustration on her face and I’m sure she sometimes thinks I’m trying to be deliberately obtuse, but the reality is that sometimes things are complicated.

Last week we were trying to work through the difference between outcomes and impacts. Much of the literature uses these terms interchangeably, although sometimes they are defined very differently.

In my view, outcomes might be short or medium term, whereas impacts tend to be wide-ranging, long term effects and therefore harder and more expensive to measure. Of course, I’m not an evaluation expert so I could well be wrong, but I remind myself that there are often a wide range of views across the profession and even the experts sometimes disagree.

I discuss this with my colleague. We circle round, we circle back, but rather than getting ourselves into a pickle, we decide that sometimes there’s no right answer.

Sometimes the best you can do is settle on your own definition and go with that. It serves no purpose to tie yourself up in knots by making things more complicated than they need to be.

The opposite of simple

Many people think that simplicity and complexity are natural opposites, but nothing could be further from the truth. You can express  very complex ideas in ways that most people can understand if you make your explanations clear enough. You don’t need to dumb down your ideas to make them understandable, you just need to present your ideas in a logical order that people can follow and use examples that people understand and are familiar with.

The opposite of simple is disorganised

When ideas are poorly organised, they look jumbled and confusing. Things can seem a lot more complicated than they really are. Think of a drawer full of stationery all mixed in together. It’s hard to know what’s in there, let alone find the pen you really need. It’s the same with ideas. When they are organised in a sensible way, people feel calmer and are able to absorb ideas more easily.

Use headings to get your ideas in the right order

Getting your ideas sorted into a sequence that makes sense is perhaps the hardest part of writing a document or developing a presentation, but it’s the most crucial step. I suggest drafting a high level plan before you start writing, so that you can get your ideas in order first. This will make the writing easier as you will already have your headings and you wont need to sit there thinking about what to write next.

Try it next time you embark on a new project and let me know how it goes.

 

Arguing for simplicity

I experienced something of a failure this week. I was in a meeting trying to argue the case for making things simple and I failed. It wasn’t that the other people in the meeting didn’t understand the value of simplicity, it was just that the needs of the organisation won out over simple common sense. Those needs revolved around the need to protect the organisation from claims that we had not provided enough detailed and accurate information to the public. In other words it was a ‘butt covering’ exercise. We were more concerned about our legal position than we were about being clear and helpful. My argument that we had a moral obligation to provide the community with clear information fell on deaf ears. It seems that it is better for us to be obtuse than helpful, and it struck me that this was probably a common problem in a range of industries.

I imagine that the disclaimers we need to sign before undergoing surgery are the result of litigation. We need to sign a form saying that we know about every single complication that might occur and that we are willing to waiver our rights to compensation if those things actually happen. This is not about informing the patient, but about protecting the hospital or the doctor. It’s the same at my workplace, even though I don’t work in a medical environment. We are heavily focussed on ourselves, rather than on our clients.

It’s sad though, because it means that in cases where it’s not a matter of life or death, we still focus on protecting our interests rather than helping the community to understand what the issues are so that they can protect themselves. This led me to thinking about how we could argue the case for simplicity, and whether this could lead us to being in a better position legally, simply because we had provided really clear information to the public.

On reflection, here are a few things I wish I had said…

  1. People are less likely to engage in litigious behaviour if they feel that they have been well informed. If you write convoluted product disclosure statements (or terms and conditions) that people don’t understand they are inclined to be annoyed and angry. (I don’t have any evidence for this, but it just makes sense to me).
  2. If you are clear, people are less like to misinterpret the information and are therefore less likely to have problems.  (This will protect your organisation).
  3. People will know appreciate that you are making an effort to be clear and will feel more kindly towards you. (There is quite a lot of evidence to suggest that people are much more likely to engage in litigious behaviour if they feel that you don’t care).

In essence, the more you show that you care about your audience (by being clear and simple) the less likely you are to face problems. I wish I had said that…

What do you think?

Things organised neatly

In my last post I talked about the fact that people like to see things arranged in an orderly fashion, so I thought that I would share this fun site with you.

Things organized neatly is a Tumbler site where people share their favourite images of (you’ve guessed it), various objects arranged in an orderly fashion.

Even for a not very tidy person like myself, this site has some inspiring, entertaining and oddly appealing images.

Here’s a sample…

A submission from Finland

Things organised neatly

 

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How to simplify a complex topic

“There is a profound and enduring beauty in simplicity, in clarity, in efficiency. True simplicity is derived from so much more than just the absence of clutter and ornamentation – it’s about bringing order to complexity.”  Jonathan Ive – lead designer at Apple.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I agree with this statement wholeheartedly; simplicity is so much more than just removing clutter (although it’s often a good place to start). When I’m asked to review a presentation I often find that what bothers me most is when things “just don’t make sense”.  Sometimes this is because there are too many words, other times it’s because something is missing, for example the link between two related items isn’t clear. Mostly, it’s because the ideas aren’t structured in a logical way.

It’s much easier than you think to bring order to your content, and the simple solution is to sort your information into categories. If you think about it, bringing order to a complex topic is just the same as tidying up a messy clothes drawer.

This is how you do it:

  1. Get everything out of the drawer and spread it on the bed.
  2. Throw out the things that are old, or worn out, or no longer fit, or you just don’t need any more.
  3. Arrange what’s left into categories: track pants, tee shirts, socks and undies.
  4. Put them in neat piles and return them to the drawer.
  5. Congratulate yourself on being a well-organised person. 

It’s exactly the same with a presentation or a document.

Gather all your information together and look at what you can discard and what’s irrelevant. Just because  a piece of information is interesting doesn’t mean it’s useful. Once you’ve got all your content honed down and sorted into related themes, you just need to arrange this in a way that’s logical and makes sense.

Human beings love order and will attempt to make sense of unrelated items; our brains are wired to look for patterns even when they don’t exist. By arranging your content in themes, you provide the audience with a sense of order that they will really appreciate at an unconscious level.

So next time you are faced with a complex presentation or a long report, start by sorting, not by writing. You will feel less overwhelmed by the task and your audience will appreciate the results.

 

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Simple versus simplistic

The other day I was surprised to hear a radio journalist use the word simplistic (meaning childish or oversimplified), when they meant simple (straightforward and easy to understand). It made me wonder if other people are confused about these two words and whether this results in simplicity having a bad name?

I have a sign on my desk that says SIMPLICITY IS THE ULTIMATE SOPHISTICATION (courtesy of Leonado da Vinci) and it serves as a reminder to me as well as people around me. I am constantly exhorting people to keep things simple, but I’m not talking about reducing ideas or concepts to the point where they become meaningless. Quite the contrary, reducing the complexity of information should increase the impact of your message and make it stronger, not weaker. Simplicity is about focus, order and clarity. It’s about making it easier for people to understand what you are saying, so that it will be memorable.

Do you face this challenge at your workplace? Do you have any suggestions about how to encourage people to make things simple, rather than more complicated?

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