About a year and a half ago, I started spending a lot of time thinking about clarity. I heard so many clients talk about how complexity was causing all kinds of difficultly in their businesses. It seemed like all of their “easy” work had been done; they had only complex issues to tackle with no clear cut answers in sight. My clients had trade-offs that needed to be weighed and conflicting priorities to be managed. And none of their work happened with a single team. Every initiative required cross-functional, cross-department, even cross-continent teams. Work was hard and everyone was tangled up in complexity.
Mulling over this problem, I turned to a familiar source of truth and wisdom: books. There were so many books about dealing with complexity, surely at least one had the answer! Most of the advice recommended a pure and shining answer to the woes of complexity: simplicity. Simplicity— focusing on what really matters—would get you out of the mire of complexity and save you.
I thought about this advice, and it seemed right. Simplicity is the opposite of complexity, so it must be the answer. And how could only focusing on “what really matters” be wrong?
As I pondered this advice, I began working with a team that was helping to implement a global customer relationship management strategy for a client. And I wanted to apply this “make it simple” rule. But, what could we cut? We still needed the strategy to be global, so we had to keep all of those teams integrated into the project. And the strategy had to support corporate goals, in addition to the goals of product, marketing, sales, and customer service. So, we couldn’t eliminate any of those teams or workflows. The goal was to settle on a single technology tool, but there are dozens on the market and they all needed to be evaluated. And, we could try to make the strategy itself simple (“just do this one thing”), but it would be tricky to pick just one thing for an entire customer relationship management strategy that spans 220 counties, 7 industries, and hundreds of products. It seemed that simplifying wasn’t going to work because the complexity was inherent in the value chain for the business. Then, a light bulb went off: serving many markets and customers with a wide variety of offerings is complex. But that doesn’t mean that the complexity itself is wrong or bad.
There had to be something else. Something else that could manage the complexity without destroying the value. At ThoughtForm, we’ve found that “something” to be clarity.
After a lot of discussions, the ThoughtForm team came up with six methods for creating clarity: context, know-how, prompts, stories, models, and curation. These methods are highly related and often are used together.
Clarity is often muddled by the things we can’t see. Restoring context gives us a clear path forward.
It’s easy to lose sight of the forest for the trees. Mapping out the big picture—whether it’s a business process, product portfolio, or technology system—clarifies relationships that we might not recognize from our own vantage point.
To make sense of complexity we must build on what we know. Give people the right know-how from the beginning and you give them a head start.
To find out what know-how your audience needs, imagine that you are a beginner. Give background and provide cross-training so your audience knows what’s happening in other areas. Then, build on that context to provide actionable, role-based knowledge. Once they understand the basics, they can apply new thinking on top of it and make it their own.
Rules and lessons bring clarity, but sometimes they get forgotten. Make it easy for people to remind themselves of what they need to do.
Sometimes, a prompt is all it takes to bring people back to center. Prompts, like checklists or head-up displays in aircraft, act as extensions of the mind and help make people’s tasks clear. They supplement people’s memory, re-focus their attention, and help them respond with agility to changing situations.
It’s hard for people to understand abstract or complex ideas when they can’t see any details. Tell specific stories to help people construct a clear picture.
At the end of the day, people are simply “show-me, tell-me” creatures. We work best from specifics. Make the abstract accessible through a story that grounds the idea with characters, a plot, and pictures. Whether it takes the form of a movie, a diagram, or a simple anecdote, the specifics of a story make an idea meaningful and relatable.
Humans have an affinity for order, but order is not easily achieved. Create information hierarchy to bring clarity to chaos.
The real world is a messy place, but with information architecture, people can create hierarchies and bring order to chaos. Good models share common strategies: grouping related elements, chunking information in people-friendly pieces, maintaining a clear hierarchy, and using a consistent vocabulary.
Sometimes, giving people all the information burdens them. Curate the information you share to help keep people on track.
Purpose is a powerful filter for deciding what to put in and what to leave out. When you know what your audience needs to accomplish, you can curate the information into a manageable set that gives users what they need and spares them the rest.
In the last year, the ThoughtForm team has made evangelizing for clarity part of our DNA. And we’ve written and spoken a lot about clarity—both how we apply it in our work and how others can apply it, too. And in all of that, I’ve been reminded of advice I was given many years ago:
The key to great communication is to imagine that you are placing stones across a wide river. Your audience must jump from stone to stone to get to the other side. If you are careless in your stone placement, the gaps between them will be too great, and your audience will tumble into the rushing waters (or start looking at their phones—a fate worse than death). But, if you put them too close together, the audience will shuffle their feet, in boredom, and slide right off those slippery rocks. So, the art is to put them just far enough apart that your audience stays engaged, but not so far apart that they lose their way. Just enough, but not too much.
And that’s what clarity has come to mean for me. I want all of us—my audiences, my teams, my clients– to get to the other side of the river. And in order to do that, we have to place those rocks just right. We have to give our audiences context, but also curate. We have to build know-how, not just task knowledge, and give them prompts when they might fail. And most importantly, we have to make visual stories that really work for the reader and act as more than decoration. If we can do that all of that, we can keep the complexity (and its value) without getting overwhelmed.