…or, in actual fact, it’s not.
What is it about businesses that they seem determined reduce everything to groups of three? Three core strategies, the top three business priorities, three-letter-acronyms (TLAs)… even the buzzwords they use to talk about keeping things simple are in threes; “fewer, bigger, better”.
I don’t believe this is a fundamental human behavioural trait: indeed, more often than not humans have a tendency to reduce issues to a simple binary: man or woman, gay or straight, freedom-fighter or terrorist, when in fact there’s almost certainly a continuum or sliding scale. It is, as Ben Goldacre asserts, a bit more complicated than that.
BUT WAIT! LOOK WHAT I DID – I GAVE YOU THREE EXAMPLES OF BINARY DISTINCTIONS! WOW!
This isn’t a new phenomenon – it’s been present through pretty much every company I’ve worked for or with in the past 20 years. But I will say that it feels like something that is on the increase. Companies spend an awful lot of time talking about how they present the results of their marketing and other activity to their Executive Boards. Let me reiterate – they spend time (and money) discussing how they present their results internally; not actually doing things differently or better to improve their business performance, not even discussing what they could do to improve their business performance.
They can be obsessed with reducing the entire sum of their activities, often encompassing millions of pounds of expenditure and the behaviour of thousands or even millions of consumers, to three key numbers. Apparently it is essential to keep things as simple as possible, so the Executive Board have a really clear picture of what’s important. So we reduce the collective brain-power, imagination & creativity of whole departments of highly-paid staff to three numbers on a Powerpoint slide. Because apparently the Executive Board aren’t capable of handling anything more complicated than that.
Are the Executive Board of Directors, supposedly among the most able in their respective functions, the best leaders of their people, the most commercially or strategically aware, really unable to cope with anything more complex than three key numbers?
I Reckon that’s either wilfully negligent or woefully incompetent. In reducing the entire sum of their business to a trite set of so-called KPIs, they will almost certainly misunderstand or miss entirely the nuanced reality of increasingly fragmented and complicated relationships between brands and consumers, and the roles of different communication channels. The Executive Board are in charge of serious and complex businesses, responsible for the livelihoods of up to thousands of employees, agencies and suppliers, not to mention shareholders. And yet within their teams, people often spend as long re-inventing the wheel, re-presenting what they re-presented last year, simply to find a new way of saying the same thing, when in fact they should be working on what would make things better, what could really make a difference.
I recently attended a presentation by Kevin Beatty, CEO of the Daily Mail Media Group. Those of you familiar with my views on his parent company’s politics and approach to its so-called journalism (sic) might be forgiven for wondering how and why I didn’t spontaneously explode. However, I was (begrudgingly) struck by the clarity of his business thought and how his company has adapted to the changing media and digital landscape.
He asserted that (I’m paraphrasing)…
…it can be a big mistake to constantly attempt to simplify everything in business. The world is complex and we have to acknowledge that we cannot know everything. We have to learn to live with constantly shifting sands, with ambiguity, and with uncertainty.
The world is complicated: understanding it takes time and effort. Trying to force-fit it into a Powerpoint template or fixed 5-slide presentation does everyone a disservice.