Simplifying your brain even with an additional 37 Signals.

A thought today that inspires me from Chicago-based 37 Signals.

Rather than add on, think about what you can strip away and simplify to make the experience of working with you more enjoyable for your audience.

Innovation via undoing complexities your customers face. What a refreshing concept in this perpetual “add on” world of ours.

When people have come to me over the last several years with an idea that will launch a new product or service, their minds often start to race with product line extensions, offshoots and even selling the company. All before anyone on Earth knows about them.

This is where taking your eye off the prize can lead you into trouble. I’m paraphrasing, but I can recall reading 37 Signals founder Jason Fried saying to the effect of, “We don’t need to offer training for our products because they’re so intuitive, you just get them.”

He’s right. Just to be on the safe side, they supply 1-2 minute bite-sized videos of each feature of his products, but you never need to watch it more than one time. His project management tools like Basecamp, Highrise and Backpack are that intuitive and easy to grasp. Basecamp essentially allows your team to collaborate and communicate with clients in a way that’s both advanced and very simple (posting thoughts in streams of communication not unlike what you see on Facebook but easier than e-mail).

Let’s look at another company – Yammer takes the concept of e-mail communication and speeds it up internally for greater group communication and input. Sending e-mail back and forth: Clunky. Yammer: Crazy simple.

Think about this notion for a moment as it applies to you. Is your product something that is so simple that nobody would have to sit down with one of your people to understand how it works? That they could just watch a 2-minute video? If not, where do the complications occur?  If you offer a service in the B2B realm that requires a face-to-face, can you structure yourself in such a way that people get exactly the advantage of working with you (“Just go to our website and you’ll see what we do.”)?

This is not an easy challenge as we all have varying things of complexity we sell to the world, whether it be bobbleheads or I.T. solutions. Yet, I believe we hurt our own cause when we try think about one-upping competitors by adding on rather than taking away. It goes back to focusing on what you are absolutely best at, not what you are mildly good at.

By now, this is where I get a reply sort of like the following:

“We’re a full-service accounting firm. We can’t strip away our services. That wouldn’t be realistic.”
Perhaps, but you’re not making it easy on someone to say you can do it all. Really. A more likely and natural scenario is that they’re looking for one service at this moment. Then, in time, you may be able to expand the relationship into other areas as they become more trusting. In other words, are there areas of your communication that could be simplified to focus more on ONE area of service that you are particularly known for or a partner has gained a reputation for that you can play up more than ALL of your parts?

Similarly, if you’re a Realtor, why say you’re the Realtor who has been around for 25 years? No offense, but that’s what a lot of people say. How do you make the process easier on first-time homebuyers in the western suburbs of Chicago?

What I’m getting at is a combination of de-cluttering your brand and clarifying your focus from an operations/technological/process/people perspective.

Simplification of Audience
Be honest with yourself. Who represents the audience you have related best to? If they’re not profitable enough, you can add on another audience to go after, but just remember how that will affect the communication strategy you need to present. I’m a bigger fan of “Here’s how we understand your audience” messaging that’s tailored to a specific group vs. “Here’s what we do at our firm” messaging that aims to appeal to all.

Simplification of Process
It’s not merely about some fancy name and putting a “tm” next to it. Is your process marketable by its simplification or does it follow the same path that any other competitor would expect to follow? From a customer service standpoint, if other companies have a maze of an automated phone system, do you have texting, Skype and other methods that streamline the way to get a hold of you faster? Can you use a product like Square to let them pay for services then and there?

By the way, this has applications to internal processes too. I once worked at an agency that had 8 pages on workflow process, complete with flowcharts for all scenarios. Impractical? You could say that. Talk about a glaring need to do away with extras for the benefit of the end user: the client.

Simplification of Product/Service
What can you “undo” in complexity that is atypical of your industry? This doesn’t even have to mean entirely new products or services – you can start with aspects of your business. For example, if the client expects a mountain of paperwork in order to engage you, what can you do to go paperless or provide just one invoice (there’s a nice environmental angle in this as well)?

Listing all your services is fine, but how do you make it easier on someone to find a wealth of information on exactly the service they know they need? And please, give them more than “We have X employees in the ____ division” when they get there. You’re not making it more complex by adding content here – you’re making it easier for them to make a decision because they’re finding more about you than the other firm and it’s raising your credibility in their eyes.

Simplification of Rewards
Think about the mechanism you can implement that make it easy as pie for a client to understand what they need to do in order to get rewarded from you. Maybe it’s nothing more than giving you their business – so what reward do they get? Maybe it’s a certain number of times visiting your restaurant and checking in on Foursquare. Maybe it’s an Amazon gift card for every qualified referral they make. If they sign up to try your software and forward a link to 5 friends who also sign up, does that original person get an upgrade? In any event, the complexity here isn’t that there’s too many rewards…it’s that there’s usually none. You can take advantage of this empty space others don’t always inhabit by communicating what clients will clearly get for a desired response.

Innovation through simplification. I’d love to hear examples of it you’ve come across, whether in your own company or other brands you’ve encountered.

Recognizing ideas made to stick vs. ideas made to stink

As a bookend to my other post this week on who doesn’t belong in the brainstorm room, your mission isn’t done when you have a collection of people who could generate great ideas. You also need to be able to recognize a great idea. I wouldn’t begin to suggest that this is easy nor would I suggest every idea I ever had was great. But I can say that by now, I’ve found there are a certain factors at play that help enhance the chances of building a better idea as well as factors that almost doom ideas from the start.

So let’s talk how to better understand what it is when it’s an idea made to stick and an idea made to stink.

Idea made to stick:
It’s got a whole lot of brother-and-sister concepts in a giant concept family. 

In another agency life, a truly great former (and sometimes current) mentor of mine would have me pump out one concept after another to hang on the wall of his office. The ideas would begin to pile up until what was under the wall faded. It became concept wallpaper. And that was a very good thing. If he only had one idea to look at at the end of the day, I imagine John wouldn’t have been too pleased at all. But because he pushed us to deliver higher quantity in order to discover and unearth those nuggets of higher quality, our collective work as a team was considerable. I’m still proud of that work today.

Idea made to stink:
The “let’s throw it against the wall and see what they say” idea. 

Sometimes really talented people on paper don’t have the stamina to push themselves beyond something they’re satisfied with. Or they fall in love with their own idea and put the brakes on any more thinking. “Can we just show them this and see what they say?” No. We can’t. Because deep down, you’re not sold on this idea. It’s good but you know it isn’t great. But you don’t want to push for great and that’s too bad. Great involves digging deeper beyond what was easy to come up with. As a college professor once told me about generating better ideas beyond the first ones, “You never worked so hard to tell them something so simple.” You have one or two ideas that you think are good? Maybe they are. Now let’s see more. A lot more. The concept that high quantity and high quality can’t live on the same page is a total bunch of BS. You show me a high quantity of ideas and I’ll bet there are some winners I get pumped about in that mix.

Idea made to stick:
You feel nervous about it. And that’s a good thing.

There’s something about it that gives you at least a little twinge of nervousness – perhaps not on the level of drinking Maalox, but it definitely feels less certain than something that feels safe and comfortable. Why? Because if you’re going to present an idea that someone feels no emotion for, it’s probably a fairly lousy idea. Wait – let me get this straight – you want people to buy into your goods or services with an emotional response but you don’t expect the person in the room approving the work to have an emotional response? Of course you do. Some people aren’t comfortable presenting the one idea that makes them the most nervous by itself and surround it with others that might be “safer.” I understand that thinking because nobody wants to be shot down and have nothing left in reserves. But maybe, just maybe, that idea that makes you nervous yet excitable can be the first one out of the bag to be presented – and if the response is so good, the others might not even need to come out. Personally, I go one step further. My opinion is if I’m rooting against one of my ideas to not be chosen because it doesn’t get me as excited, I shouldn’t be presenting it in the first place.

Idea made to stink:
Crafted primarily for the person approving the work instead of the person buying the end product or service.
You do a preliminary presentation to someone underneath the top person approving the work, because they requested it. They see the idea, their eyes get big and they say, “I just know Carl doesn’t like the font Lucida Grande or feminine colors or shots of people smiling directly into the camera, so we can’t have ideas that involve that.”

Oh boy. Ideas that are created for Carl instead of the 300,000 people buying Carl’s product are not starting off on the right foot. Look, I get politics. I really do. I get that certain things have to be sold persuasively and at times delicately to those approving parties. But I have found in my experience this is where audience research can be solid ammo. It’s not smoke-and-mirrors to get your way. It’s factual stuff that shows you’ve done your homework on the customer. “We know the new brand we’re talking about appears more feminine in design than where we’ve been in the past but our research shows that 86% of our audience are young women between the ages of 18 and 24 years old, so it makes sense to ween ourselves away from those dark greens and greys.”

Think farther than the person putting the rubber stamp of approval on the idea. Their opinion matters, of course. But even beyond any ego involved, most marketers would have to reasonably agree that their customer’s opinion matters even more.

How else can you give your ideas a better chance of rising to the top as an idea made to stick? Try reading The Do-It-Yourself Lobotomy by Tom Monahan. A former agency owner who has crafted many a great idea, I’ve heard this gentleman speak on creative idea generation and his “100mph” way of thinking might be of great benefit for your next brainstorm.

The 3 People Who Never Belong In A Brainstorm Room

“OK, everybody. Come on into the brainstorm room/conference room and let’s talk about (Insert Initiative Here). We’re going to need to generate some ideas.”

Whoa, whoa, whoa. Let’s take that a step back. As it turns out, the process of cultivating ideas isn’t for everybody. It’s not an automatic right based on title. I think what we forget about brainstorms is that we’re so focused on getting to the quality of the idea that we forget that in getting there, there needs to be quantity (this is a separate post in itself). The minute you brainstorm, you’re turning on a faucet at one speed: Fast. When you have these 3 types of people in the room, you’ll slow the pace to a trickle, if not shut it off completely. Let’s meet them, shall we?

Negative Nancy
“No, that’s not going to work.”
“No, they won’t like it because they don’t like the color blue.”
“No, we tried something like that before and they didn’t like it.”

The problem with Negative Nancy is that her presence is like tossing a grenade into the room. Her motivation for saying “no” is in all likelihood the fact that she has no or very few original ideas of her own but she wants to appear relevant to others. It’s not about her title, it’s about a deeper issue. “No” is her insecurity talking. It’s not that she isn’t necessarily a valuable employee, it’s just that brainstorming isn’t her forte. So all you’re doing by having her in the room is inviting the rejection of ideas like Dwight Howard swatting away a basketball. Ideas? Not in your house. Negative Nancy will not only shut down the idea presented but the ensuing effect of her presence will be to shut down a steady stream of ideas.

The “we tried that before” is a particular feature of this person I take issue with because there are many variables that may have worked poorly before that can be corrected now. Maybe it wasn’t the right time or place before. Maybe the idea before didn’t have the right audience to accept it. Maybe the idea before just wasn’t that creative compared to its better looking sibling idea now.

Overthinking Oscar
“Well, if we were to do that, how exactly would that work?”
That’s not important right now. Really. You’re putting the brakes on a phase that is geared to be purely conceptual. And when you do that, the brainstorming process goes from 120 mph to 20 mph and declining fast. It’s amazing how quickly the wind changes in the room. Dwelling on the “how’s it going to actually work” is important at a later point. When? When the brainstorm is pretty much over and you have a collection of concepts, scribbles, ideas, seeds, etc. to study more closely for deeper evaluation.

“Me First” Mel
“Well, I can’t relate to that idea in my own life so it must not be relevant.”
Mel probably isn’t trying to appear this self-centered, he just doesn’t know how to step outside of his own skin to identify what the true audience is facing in their lives. It’s not about YOU. The chances of someone in the brainstorming room actually matching the profile of the audience you’re trying to target is rare. So if you’re a 40-something female in middle management who lives in the western suburbs of Chicago who drives a Mercedes, you need to have more of an open mind if your audience is a 20-something who graduated a couple years ago, unmarried and lives in L.A. The behaviors, tastes and preferences are not going to be the same. And even if you are, no offense, but you’re just one person.

“Oh, horse crud. I think I’m one of these 3 people. Should I not be brainstorming?”
Not yet and don’t despair. There’s an easy way to right the ship. It just requires some self-discipline on your part. When someone comes up with an idea, let it get out there without immediate judgment. Yes, the idea may be stupid, but everyone has them. Stupid ideas can be great springboards to better ideas. You don’t know what small seed of something good may lie within that thought. And if it’s truly that awful, trust the judgment of others in the room to let it pass like a ship in the night. Remember, you still have the phase after the brainstorming is over to reserve judgment on ideas – just not right there in the moment. If you can train yourself to think positively and concentrate on keeping the flow of concepts going without shutting them down, overthinking or asking yourself What Would I Do, I think you’ll be on the path to being a valuable asset that others will enjoy inviting into the brainstorm room every time.

Final thought – if the person who meets one of these criteria above is a manager that you can’t tell to sit it out, all is not lost. What I like to do in these situations is have a designated person announce some brief ground rules (“no bad ideas”) of no more than 2 minutes long EVERY time you brainstorm just to reinforce what should and shouldn’t be said. You’ll better your chances of ensuring the faucet of ideas flows mightily rather than trickles to a few drips.