Oswald Letter

Finding simple answers to complicated questions

Keep It Simple StupidA great man once said, “Sometimes the questions are complicated and the answers are simple.” The man credited for uttering those words? Dr. Seuss.

But how right was the author of those wonderful children’s books? In my estimation, he hit the nail on the head.

I was on the phone the other day with a company CEO. It was the first time I had ever spoken to him, and I asked him to explain his business to me. I was interested in the services he offered, how he made money, and what his plans were for the future of his company. He eagerly answered my questions and with great pride and enthusiasm spent the better part of an hour talking about his business.

The problem was that I only understood a fraction of what he was telling me — and it wasn’t from a lack of trying on my part. I was truly interested in what he was doing. The problem was the opposite of what Dr. Seuss professed. My questions were simple, but the answers were complicated. He sounded extremely smart, but the jargon he used made it impossible for me to follow where he was trying to lead me. The entire conversation ended up sounding scripted, almost like a political speech that is long on words but short on substance.

As a leader, you need to keep your messages short and simple. I had a high school basketball coach who liked to say he followed the K.I.S.S. principle — Keep It Simple, Stupid. That’s good advice for any manager.

You don’t need to complicate your communication to impress others. The opposite is really true — by keeping it simple, you have a much better chance of connecting with your people. And unlike politicians who make different promises depending on who the audience is, a simple, straightforward, honest message is much easier for you to remember and deliver on.

The same is true with business in general. The principles of business are not that complicated. That doesn’t mean businesses can’t get complicated. I’ve even argued that my business is complicated. But if you deliver a quality product or service that is needed, you price it appropriately, and you make sure you stay relevant to your customers, you’ll likely make some money. Like I said, the basic premise of business isn’t that complicated.

I’ve written before that the football movie Remember the Titans is one of my favorites of all time. In fact, to call it a football movie doesn’t do it justice. But that’s not my point. In Remember the Titans, head coach Herman Boone has an incredibly thin playbook with only a handful of plays. When questioned about the lack of sophistication of his approach to offense, Coach Boone confidently states, “It’s like Novocain. Give it time. It always works.”

You see, Coach Boone’s philosophy was to run a few play but run them well — maybe even perfectly at times. Sure, he could hand out a playbook with hundreds of plays, something for every occasion, but instead he focused on executing a select few plays extremely well. His goal was to get his team of young men able to perform their individual jobs in concert so the team could be successful. It sounds a lot like managing, doesn’t it?

So when does complicating things actually help your chances for success? Boiling complicated procedures down to a series of simple tasks that can be performed with a high degree of confidence and accuracy, now that’s not easy, but it is the stuff of successful managers.

I implore you as a manager to keep it simple. Don’t over complicate things. Your job as a manager is to take complicated questions and help others to find simple answers. If you get caught up trying to impress others with how difficult your job is or how complex the procedures you use are, then you’re probably going to have a hard time getting others to follow you. Follow the advice of Dr. Seuss and look for the simple answers to the complicated questions!