A 2-D Stick Person Throwing Away Trash
A 2-D Stick Person Throwing Away Trash


Andrew Osterday

Change & Transformation
5 minutes

Change Happens When We Simplify

When GM CEO Mary Barra was appointed VP of Global Human Resources in 2009, one of her first tasks involved tackling a seemingly minor issue — dress code policy. Why, among the dozens of burning priorities on her desk, in an $11 billion dollar company, did she choose to focus on something so trivial as the dress code?

Because she knew it wasn’t trivial at all. It mattered to GM employees. And she was setting the tone for her leadership style and work approach — simplification.

Barra reduced the clunky, verbose 42-page dress code down to two words: “Dress appropriately.” She naturally faced resistance, but through transparent communication and empowering managers, the policy stuck, and the new cultural tone was set. (Read more in our Forbes article, “Opportunity And Ownership: Take Back Control By Giving It Away.”)

Barra understood the impact of acting on one, seemingly simple human insight, and now, as CEO, she continues on this path. Leaders in all types and sizes of businesses should take note.

What do we mean by simplicity?

“I have made this longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter.”

Blaise Pascal, French mathematician and philosopher

Simplicity is not just doing something in half the time. Simplicity isn’t efficiency, rather effectiveness. It’s actually putting more time into the craft, so in the end product every word matters, every visual supports the idea, and every idea can be understood quickly by any employee on the front lines.

Long, verbose communications feel valuable but in reality are lazy. You have to understand the nuances and intricacies of the audience and every aspect of the business and culture to be able to distill it down to key messages for all stakeholders. Words matter.

Why is it so hard to make things simple?

Great writers and speakers know things take time. In response to a question about how long it takes him to prepare speeches, Former President Woodrow Wilson said:

“That depends on the length of the speech. If it is a ten-minute speech it takes me all of two weeks to prepare it; if it is a half-hour speech it takes me a week; if I can talk as long as I want to it requires no preparation at all. I am ready now.”

As a company grows — whether organically or through investment or M&A — it becomes more difficult to communicate. The landscape gets bigger, more dispersed, more complex. Everything becomes more challenging in large, global environments — it’s harder for people to have meaningful relationships and to know their impact, and certainly harder for leaders to get a point across with all the noise.

Many a CEO has a $1M PowerPoint on their desk gathering dust. Stop confusing heft with value! Bombarding employees with decks no one has the time to read and 60-minute town hall recordings no one will watch wastes money. You’d be better off with a single word people can hold onto and make their own. Isn’t that what the best brands in the world have already figured out?

The Most Magical Place on Earth (Disney).
Just Do It (Nike).
Open Happiness (Coke).
Belong Anywhere (Airbnb).

Imagine an idea as a fast growing tree. Let it flower! Nurture all the opportunities, all the potential, all the avenues it affords you. Observe all the risks, all the dependencies, and all the technical complexities and barriers. Let it get complex.

Then prune the tree. Edit, ruthlessly. Be honest about what people care about, respect their time by stripping away any unnecessary bullshit.

  • Kill text — My team was privileged enough to win a Cannes Gold Lion for a website that had less than 20 words on the entire home page. Why? Because we didn’t need it. The fewer words on the page, the more meaning each letter had.
  • Plain speak — Don’t confuse plain speak with real speak or cute slang. Use simple sentence structure and 5th grade vocabulary to make your message stick.
  • A picture is worth a thousand words — Use meaningful visuals that convey what the text is saying in an instant. If the image doesn’t support the message, remove it.

To change and transform requires simplification. Simplicity comes from being complex, then stripping the idea down to its base essence. That’s how you communicate. That’s how you transform.

Change Happens When We Simplify

Watch more Local Industries Change Stories at: https://vimeo.com/album/4935486

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