Simon Terry

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On Sound Bites

Complexity is increasing. People demand simpler messages. How can leaders deliver?

Jacob Burckhardt, a Swiss historian of the 19th century, described the paradox that as material conditions improve, complexity increases, but so does that demand for simplicity. Increasing complexity creates a growing social appeal of simple messages and solutions.  Society is exposed to the risk of increasing appeal in the messages of demagogues who promise simplicity often at the cost of tyranny, ‘terrible simplifiers’. We need only look to the ideologies of last century or our current politics and media to see the pull of overly simple messages.

Modern leaders face this challenge daily. Easy jobs get done. The challenges leaders face are complex, networked and moving rapidly. All stakeholders want simple easy solutions. Deliver a sound bite and the leader’s work is done.

We should all communicate as simply and concisely as possible. We also know overly simple messages can mislead, be disengaging or be counterproductive. When simplicity does not deliver solutions or when the stakeholders craves a simplicity that is not yet possible, how does a leader progress?

Converse, Don’t Communicate: Politicians speak in sound bites to fit a traditional media broadcast mentality. Leaders can use a range of tools to foster a richer and ongoing conversation. Encourage questions, debate and engagement. Conversations cover complexity more efficiently than any prepared speech.

Talk Purpose, Not Plan: A purpose can and should be simpler than a plan of action. A key role of a leader is to connect stakeholders in a common & worthwhile purpose. People united in purpose are more engaged and more collaborative. Purpose helps people work through complexity. Use your leadership communication to engage people in a simple common purpose.  Better to let the group build a plan together and address the many complexities when united around a simple purpose.

Use Immersion, Not Information: Complex scenarios can be hard to express and share.  Resist the temptation to cut the problem down to a soundbite of fact or a single measure to improve. Show people the situation and let them immerse themselves in the experience. The action is simple but people’s takeaways will be far more complex.

Offer Confidence, Not Certainty: Confidence and certainty are often confused. Leaders can be confident in the capabilities of a group, but uncertain as to the path or the outcome. Offering certainty where it cannot exist is a path of disappointment and deceit. If you cannot express confidence, then the first task is to do what is necessary to do so.

Be Credible, Not Consistent: Complex systems change. Solutions and conversations need to iterate. Conversations should involve learning. Holding to a consistent position in the light of changing facts is likely to be inflexible at best and damaging to credibility at worst. Building trust by building your credibility & capability as a leader is more important than holding to a consistent position for the sake of simplicity. Bear in mind that if you have engaged others in conversation, they will understand the rationale for the change in position for they will have experienced the debate.

We can all communicate more simply. We should. However, we must not trade simplicity for effectiveness as leaders. Even these simple approaches are likely to fail in some circumstances. Leaders must continue the challenge of finding simple ways to engage people in solving the most complex problems.


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