Conquering complexity – in 6 steps

People yearn for simplicity. Whether it’s in- or outside work, contending with multifarious obligations, considerations, opportunities and challenges can be overwhelming.
When we feel bogged down and are greeted by more complexity around every corner, simple answers are alluring.
This is a phenomenon that’s not gone unnoticed by people who want to make a quick buck.
The arrival of Christmas in October/November is always marked by not only the red Coke truck on TV, but also the launch of “halve your body fat and change your life in 5 minutes” diet books by reality ‘celebs’.
The corporate world has its equivalents. Charismatic leaders who appear brandishing a silver bullet to turbo-charge our business, whip up a frenzy of excitement accompanied by euphoric sound tracks and dry ice at the annual conference, but disappear sans fanfare as the bullet misses its multiple targets.
Being human is complex, dealing with humans is complex, running a brand or business is complex. We cannot remove complexity – but we can try and conquer it.
Lots of business & marketing strategy work – of the sort we often undertake with clients – could be described as helping people conquer complexity to make better, quicker, more focussed choices.
Enlisting external helps to bring in valuable experience and perspective; but it’s also good to challenge your marketing team to develop in-house skills to help them navigate through the maze.
Here are a few thoughts for some steps to follow and questions to ask. This abridged toolkit of questions could help in a range of circumstances – from brand planning, to scoping out a project, to tackling a performance issue or accessing a commercial opportunity.

1 – Framing the question

As Einstein famously said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions”. In business we are addicted to (and rewarded for) action, which means carving out time/space to define problems is tough. 

  • Why does this (issue/problem/opportunity) matter?
  • Are we clear about our ‘context’ – what’s going on that influences – or is influenced by – this issue?
  • Can we define what we’re trying to achieve?  Doing this precisely enough is easier said than done.
  • Who’s important?Who are the stakeholders, why do they matter?
  • How will we know that we’ve solved the problem, or been successful?

2 – What do we already know?

In my experience, organisations often know more answers than they think. Whether research hidden in archives, or in the collective experience of the team, we often know more than we think we do. The bigger the firm, the more prevalent this is. 

  • Have we looked at this before?
  • What & who might be able to provide a historical context? Are there learnings from other similar problems?
  • What can we filter out / discard?
  • The better defined the problem is, the easier the process of purging irrelevant material.

3 – What don’t we know?

Nobody can know everything. Some marketers get a little paralysed when they don’t have all the details and lack the confidence to judge when it’s OK to proceed anyway. Some others have the opposite problem – deliberately ignoring significant gaps fearing it will slow things down, or sourcing only information that supports their agenda. 

  • What knowledge gaps do we have?
  • Which gaps matter and which ones don’t?
  • How can we fill the gaps?  For example, by getting more information/insight, or by agreeing to make some assumptions.

4 – Synthesise & loop back

We show thinking processes as straight black lines, but they are more like lots of messy, squiggly, multicoloured lines. The key is to allow enough time to both synthesise your information and to allow for some iteration. 

  • Refer back to the problem/issue as we defined it; looking across our information, do any obvious ideas/hypotheses jump out that could help us solve the problem we defined?
  • Can we test these ideas/hypotheses out using the information we collected?Can we ditch any ‘nonstarters’?
  • Do we need to loop back and get more info to test out the more promising ideas/hypotheses?

5 – Options & recommendation

Again, the better defined the problem, the more chance that credible options will appear, and the quicker it will be to either progress or discount them (because we’re clear about the benchmarks we’re using to evaluate). 

  • What options do we have?  Never forget, doing nothing is always an option (even if it’s not always an attractive one)
  • Based on the problem as we’ve defined it, which options are feasible, which can be discounted?
  • What’s the best option to solve our problem and that’s acceptable to our stakeholders?
  • How do we secure the support & resources we need to drive our recommendation into action? How do we demonstrate the quality of thinking that’s led us here?

6 – Into action

Simplicity can be the key to getting stuff done. The better the process of thinking we used to get to a plan, the easier it is to later articulate the “why, what and how” more simply. A simpler and coherent message is one which will get both the decision-makers and do-ers on board – and ultimately get you results.
At Brand Ambition, we love helping clients to ‘conquer complexity’ in their businesses – enabling them to get to better, quicker, more focussed choices. If you or your team might benefit from help with marketing strategy, brand planning, or driving strategy into action, please get in touch for a chat.

Recent posts

To act, or not to act

To act, or not to act

Brand activism In the marketing echo chamber, it can be easy to get disenchanted with your role. Nowadays if your hair gel, extruded potato snack or toothpaste is not involved in some planet-saving endeavour or fight for human rights, then the zeitgeist implies we...

The best of frenemies

The best of frenemies

Why marketing & finance should work better together It could be said that marketing & finance functions have historically been pretty distant from each other. Stereotypically they are the organisations’ left and right brains, but in practice it’s often less of...

WHSmith – defying gravity?

WHSmith – defying gravity?

How strategic choices are shaping the future of a 200 year old retailer As any traveller who’s forgotten their headphones will tell you, there’s a whole chunk of money to be made selling gadgets and travel accessories in airports. That’s a fact not lost on WHSmith...