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Keep It Simple, Smartypants

In strategic communications, pith is prized. A description that stands on its own, without extensive supplemental information or required expertise from the listener, is the raw material of a compelling polemic.

However, reducing complex ideas to simple descriptions is challenging, particularly for experts who have a detailed and nuanced sense of a given subject matter. The investment of time and passion required to understand a topic in great detail makes the idea of simplification disheartening and the process frustrating.

Countless are the engineers that grumble for days after watching their work reduced to some elemental description that misses the elegance of their strategy.

What may be missed in this frustration is the wisdom of simplicity: To state something succinctly is to understand the issue, concept or enterprise as an emergent whole. The considered layers and refined details are critical, but only in as much as they support the broader objective.

Defining the emergent whole, simply, can help distinguish superfluous flourishes and off-topic branches from mission-critical information.

Most importantly, the process of simplifying leads to a deep understanding of all levels of an idea.

A Freshman Lecture From a Master

Legendary Caltech physicist (Manhattan Project, Nobel Prize, Challenger Shuttle Commission, bon vivant, etc.) Richard Feynman, when asked to explain the details of his sum-over-histories approach to quantum mechanics, begged off, and requested time to develop a freshman lecture on the topic.

A week later, when Feynman returned empty handed, he admitted he could not come up with a simplified version of his work. He explained that his failure meant that no one really understood the concept. (If Feynman didn’t have it down, no one did.)

Feynman clearly had mastery of his own theory, in so far as it was understood, but no more. This bona fide genius recognized that he did not have the complete picture. He did not have a conceptual hierarchy that would allow him to see what was a supporting concept and what was the emergent whole.

Having a conceptual hierarchy is important for strategy generally, and new venture strategy in particular.

Pith Is Not the Same as Understanding

Consider an entrepreneur (imaginary) who describes his product as “a new cloud-based platform for crowd-sourcing content finance.” Fairly pithy, fairly efficient. However, lacking a conceptual hierarchy. Cloud-based? Platform? Crowd sourcing? Finance? We know what those words mean, but what is the emergent economic proposition? What problem does it solve, for what market?

When pressed, the entrepreneur gets lost in the details of a rating system and platform data management – both necessary for something calling itself a crowd-sourced, cloud-based platform – but not sufficient to explain the core business value.

The entrepreneur knows his product inside and out, but does not know what it is by and large.

Very often entrepreneurs and executives sense this deficit in their understanding. They have years of experience in a market or with a technology and are uniquely qualified to identify opportunities. Once identified, though, the operational details flood their senses, and the initial instinct is obscured behind a veil of sensible detail.

Piercing the Veil

When caught in the fog of complexity, experienced entrepreneurs and executives often reach for numbers, concrete and dependable ROI calculations, to justify their new enterprises. There are so many unknowns in venture creation that definitive, predictive numbers are essentially impossible to generate.

And that’s okay.

More often than not, what these talented people are actually looking for is the juicy center of their idea - a juicy center that they are aware of intuitively, but that remains frustratingly out of reach. If they are willing to build a complete financial picture of their idea (including all necessary operational assumptions), a quest for numbers is often a path to conceptual clarity.

Planting Flags

For venture strategists, this means assembling as much data as possible, making simplifying assumptions and testing the outcomes against expertise. The process is by definition iterative and involves refining information, not eliminating it. The goal is to use the details to generate a conceptual hierarchy that is consistent and compelling.

When carried out successfully, at the top of the hierarchy is the core idea, rendered so that anyone can understand it. It's expertise for the freshmen of the world who are going to be your partners on the adventure.

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