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Un-Complicate & Unclutter

25 Mins


By Team Artha

Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication

Leonardo da Vinci

Speed is essential for a startup, but speed makes sense only if there is an underpinning of uncluttered thinking. Speed in the absence of clarity results in mindless activity and creates a false sense of progress. Similarly, clarity in the absence of speed results in very good power- points with little to show for results. So, it is never about clarity or speed. It is always about both.

The absence of uncluttered thinking cannot be compensated by better execution. On the contrary, a cluttered thought process overlaid with great execution can be fatal! Startups are particularly prone to this since their default velocity is high and if cluttered thinking results in a wrong direction, they can go off too far too quickly in the wrong direction. I have seen this happen so often that I start getting impatient when I sense clutter creeping into a discussion.

While building a product, the later you discover a design flaw, the more difficult it is to rectify, and the greater the cost of rectification. Therefore, one can never overemphasize the importance of spending a little more time, at the early stage of solving any problem – on getting the problem definition and the contours of a solution correct.

Activity traps are a sign of cluttered thinking.

Have you watched a penalty shootout in a soccer game? Even before the shooter strikes the ball, the goalkeeper would have leapt to one side even though there is sufficient statistical evidence that there is a one-third probability that the ball would go to the right, a one-third probability that it would go to the left and an equal one-third probability that it would go straight! In fact, the probability of making a save for the goalie is the highest if he is rooted to the spot! The obvious reason why no goalie does this is because of how foolish he would look if the ball goes to the left or the right! This bias for action is very strong in the corporate world, and in startups, it is religion. You need to be doing something even if not doing anything, maybe the best thing. In the absence of clear thinking, a bias for action can make things worse.

Those with a strong bias for action with little or no clarity of thought are mostly the ones that generate activity traps at a startup giving the illusion of energy and action but actually creating a lot of damage. This is very visible when they are analyzing a problem. In no time, they would have created a “to-do” list of ten things, assigned ownership to these, and will follow through religiously in the subsequent meetings. They do not think sufficiently before initiating action. For such individuals, action is the holy grail. Spending a little longer on getting to the right solution is seen as an excuse for not committing to action. The impact of this activity trap is that everyone is busy and thinks they are working hard. And, despite this, problems do not seem to go away. They actually get worse!

The danger of cluttered thinking is accentuated when it comes to the softer issues, where there are multiple variables impacting an outcome in an undetermined and often undeterminable way. The softer issues could relate to customer & employee behaviors, customer & employee retention etc. When it comes to these topics, most discussions are muddled. Everyone has opinions. No one knows how to rank the possible causes or validate them. This does not come easily. The lesson in this is that you need to have a clear thinker who drives solutions to complex problems. Alternately, you can insert a clear thinking, assertive individual into the team that is assigned to solving a complex problem.

It is easy to spot cluttered thinking.

A sure shot sign of clutter is reliance on jargon. If someone resorts to jargon to explain a problem statement or a solution, it is a clear giveaway. A person with an uncluttered thought process goes out of the way to define problems, explain constraints, or describe solutions with minimal use of jargon. And they are obsessive about this. They are good at using analogies from contexts that others can relate to for clarifying a point. In addition, they emphasize and reinforce key messages and insights that can create understanding or swing a decision. In contrast, cluttered minds do not, and cannot, discriminate. They state everything with the same emphasis and do not draw specific attention to those points that can swing a discussion. Another sign of cluttered thinking is the blind reliance on data without overlaying intuition as a sense check.

We were once designing an incentive plan for our last mile order-fulfilment staff. We started by identifying the performance parameters. Several came up:

All of these were equally important, so each was given a weight of 20%. Standards were set for each. For example, on the first parameter, you got a score of 5 if the on-time delivery percentage was 99.5% or more. It was four if it was between 99% and 99.5%.

In this way, after assigning a score on a 5 point scale for each of the five parameters and then applying the weights, everyone got a weighted average score on a 5 point scale. This process ran for a few months until we decided to evaluate its effectiveness. Did it drive performance? No. Because the staff did not understand what performance really meant. It was some vague mish-mash of parameters mathematically churned to produce a score. From driving performance, the objective of the plan somewhere along the way was unconsciously modified to create an elegant looking measurement mechanism. Losing track of the core problem you are trying to solve, or focusing on how to measure rather than what to measure, is an unambiguous sign of a cluttered mind. When we dug deeper, we found that some of the parameters were not differentiators at all. A good majority of the people achieved a perfect score on these parameters. So, by introducing these parameters and giving them weight, the parameters that really mattered were heavily diluted. We finally came up with just one parameter - the number of orders delivered in the month (that combined productivity and availability of a person). It wasn’t as if we got a quick agreement. There were several objections. For instance, if a customer cancels an order, would the order be counted as delivered for the purpose of incentive computation? We killed this by applying the law of averages - there is no reason to assume that a particular individual would be singled out by customers for cancellation. Since cancellation would be random, we could safely assume that the law of averages applies and avoid complicating a simple plan. We also killed the other ‘clever’ tweaks that people wanted to introduce. And, we moved repeated fatal errors on the non-differentiating parameters as ‘gates’. It was now easy to communicate and understand. The fulfilment staff knew what metric drove their incentive and could go after it with focus.

Another example: Oftentimes, the direct interface between the tech team and the business user results in the design being inelegant and heavy. The business user lays down every possible scenario with “if ‘condition 1’, then ‘go to x’, else ‘go to y’” kind of requirements. And the tech team takes their time in building a solution that delivers these functionalities. In some (nowadays all) companies, a product team steps in as an intermediary. A good product person is one who “un-clutters” by asking the right questions to both sides. Questions like, “do we really need this” “what business problem does this functionality solve, and is there a different way it can be solved” “what happens if we don’t design for this condition” “how often does this condition arise”, “can we roll this out faster if we make some changes to the functionality”, “can we deal with this in a different way” etc.

Another example: We were once beset with vendor payments issues, especially in remote regions. In every review, this would bubble up as a major irritant. It was becoming difficult to figure out where the problem was. We applied uncluttered thinking to this problem and came up with the following: Every vendor that delivers a service to the company has someone in the company who is a recipient of that service. Interruption in services hurts the recipient of the service the most. The onus for maintaining continuity of services by certifying and paying invoices on time rests with the recipient of services. Getting invoices in a format that corporate finance wants them in, answering questions that finance may have, and finally escalating and creating hell if finance is unreasonable & bureaucratic is the job of the recipient of the service. Bottom line: The onus of having vendors paid is that of the recipient of the service. What we did here was to un-clutter the ownership of a process.

Dealing with clutter starts with understanding what it really is:
  • What IS clutter?
  • Can we spot clutter? How can we avoid clutter?
  • Don’t most smart people know how to avoid clutter?
At a deeper level, clutter is a result of:
  • An inability to prioritize and discriminate. An inability to identify and ignore the smaller things. On the flip side, it is the inability to identify what matters most in any situation (they don’t get the Pareto principle).
  • An inability to demystify and explain something complex without jargon. When you are part of a discussion where you don’t know the jargon (say a discussion on the digital marketing strategy), you should ask the group elementary questions about the linkages of what they are saying to some common business outcomes. Specialized functions, and often very smart people, have a tendency to get so lost in their little specialities that they don’t realize the complications they are setting in motion.
  • Making more assumptions than are absolutely necessary
  • Doing something because you have a tool for it, measuring something because you know how to measure it, or focusing on the ‘how’ at the cost of the ‘what’, are all clear signs of cluttered thinking
  • Cutting to the chase and a healthy suspicion of complex stuff is a good sign.

An idea, process, or design is cluttered if:

  • It is difficult to comprehend, difficult to communicate, and difficult to rally people around If it calls for too much back and forth, it relies on busy folks finding the time to do something they are not trained for
  • If the designer cannot explain to folks from a different function what business or customer problem their process is solving
  • If no one has thought of or evaluated ways in which an idea or process could fail totally or partially

Uncluttered thinking will help you deal with debilitating logical fallacies you encounter every day.

We noticed that the all-pervading virus that infected discussion and impacted the speed and quality of decision making at every level in a startup was “logical fallacies”. You could trip any argument by throwing a logical fallacy. You could trip the reverse argument with another logical fallacy. The reason why it is called a logical fallacy is because it sounds so logical at first sight. If you are ensnared by one of these, you are likely to a) end up agreeing to something that won’t solve a problem but will buy time for the team or the person who is throwing it at you, b) you might end up solving a wrong problem, or c) you might end up proposing a wrong solution. Here are three simple examples:

  • Function Head: In this annual pay raise, if I differentiate significantly between the average performing business heads in my team and the outstanding performers, I am likely going to end up demotivating most of them. We just lost a business head. If we do this, we could end up losing some more. I would suggest we moderate the increases for those in the middle and tone down the increases for those at the high end of the performance. This was code language for “I can’t differentiate and can’t defend it. So, I would rather take the easy way out”
  • Head of Customer Service: I don’t know if the NPS is really relevant in our context. The measurement is so stringent. And, in our cultural context, even delighted customers are unlikely to rate any service provider 9 or 10 on a 10 point scale. So, let’s not worry unduly about the NPS scores. This was code language for “I really never understood the finer aspects of NPS or why it is considered such a powerful tool. I agreed to this measurement just because the Board forced it on me. I never realized I would be held accountable for the NPS score.”
  • Function Head: The deferred bonus plan isn’t working. People are very unhappy about this. I suggest that we merge this into the monthly payments. This was code language for “I know I asked for the deferred bonus plan because we wanted to keep people for at least a year. Now that the plan is in place, I am faced with another problem which is people seem to rather prefer a higher monthly salary. I don’t know how to deal with this. So, I am reversing my stand.”
In Conclusion

Simplify by starting every non-recurring meeting with “why are we meeting today”, “what outcomes are we driving towards”. In the absence of this upfront clarity of purpose, it is difficult to imagine how much time could get wasted, how much clutter you could accumulate, and how many non-productive activities you could end up initiating. Simplify by identifying a primary owner when an issue seems too interconnected & cross-functional to have an obvious owner. Let this primary owner coordinate between the different teams and bring the pieces together. Simplify by figuring out who is feeling the pain the most and asking the person to take ownership to find a solution to the problem. In a startup, a good principle to go by is, “if you feel the pain, take the initiative and fix it”. Simplify a complex problem by breaking it up into smaller problems. Simplify – by asking, “what problem are we trying to solve”. Simplify by asking, “do we really need to do this” “why does this need to be done” or “does the law really require us to do this, and can we check this out”. Simplify by asking once in a while, “do we have to really solve this problem? Is our time better spent attending to more pressing issues?” If people are constantly violating a process, think of whether you need to re-engineer it. Simplify by questioning every process or step that is not adding value but making it heavy. Simplify by asking “why, why, why.”

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Team Artha