5. Complexifying simplicity
The need to complexify stuff is uniquely human.
When I outlined this article about 3 months ago, as part of the series of 8 articles, I created a template for each article: they’d all start with a story, they’d have a tool or technique, I’d draw a simple image (with lots of colours), I’d identify further reading… I knew that if I did this all the articles would read well, be useful to the reader, and deliver what I wanted you to know (that capturing thoughts, organising ideas and reducing waste is the secret to writing more!)
Then I got to writing up this article. In my handwritten notes I didn’t have an opening story. I was stuck. If I didn’t open with a story the article was doomed, it would be a failure, you wouldn’t understand me, I would have screwed up. I needed a story, I wracked my brain, thought about cats, dogs, horses, plants, cheese, engineering – nothing – I had no complexifying simplicity story. What would I do. I’d have to start again, write a different article, apologise, miss a week… What if I made something up? Asked a friend? Used someone else’s story? Could I write the article without a story? Would it work? I did nothing on the writing of this article until the last minute. It was too complex…
Complexifying stuff comes natural to me – and probably you. There are a couple of ways we waste our time when we complexify things up: 1. feel overwhelmed, do nothing or do everything, and 2. let the complexity out into the world, and confuse our readers.
1. Feeling overwhelmed by (creating) complexity: It all seems just too much. You’re feeling overwhelmed by the things you need to learn, understand, write, do. Every day someone comes out with a new book writing method, a better way of gaining followers, a different method of creating podcasts. Social, make a video everyday, Facebook Live, start a mailing list… Your book’s cover design, size, the images inside, your marketing platform… What should you do? Everything? Nothing? Just when you think you’re starting to understand stuff it all gets really complex again. So you reorganise things, create a new system, do everything, do nothing, make it even more complex. This is waste!
Overwhelm leads to under-activity.
I’ll let the Roman satirist, Petronius Arbiter (27 AD — 66 AD), have the last word on this (my emphasis in bold!): “We trained hard, but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form into teams, we would be reorganized. I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganizing, and what a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralization.”
2. Letting the complexity out into the world: As you start to write you think of all the things you really need to tell the reader – the background to the technique, the history, why they should use it, why they shouldn’t, what else they could do, who has used these ideas, the 17 case studies, the 51 scientific reports, the blind trials – there’s so much you need to tell the reader, otherwise they won’t know everything and it’ll be a disaster! My book will need to be 800,000 words, with 70,000 images, a million footnotes…
I’m going to have the last word(s) on this one – stop complexifying simplicity stupid pants!
How to fix your natural urge to complexify simplicity
It’s all about constraints. No, not those kinds!
Without constraints you are lost in a sea of complexity. Constrain your urges, your time, your actions and your resources. I’m going to cover using constraints to make you a better writer in a later article, but for now know this:
Constraints are good for you, boundaries are essential, without focus you are complexifying everything.
In the context of removing waste from the writing process, you must understand who you are writing for, their need to move, what they need from you and your ability to deliver within a time/word constraint. These are the important constraints. Go and have a look at Waste #1 for more information on finding focus.
As usual I have a simple model for you – well this time a two part model – the MoSCoW Method with a Priority Slide.
MoSCoW Method in Writing
The MoSCoW thingy is a a prioritisation technique from software developers and business analysts to create a common understanding amongst stakeholders of the importance of deliverables. In other words – what’s important for the important people? These are the constraints.
A team of creative software engineers could deliver many lovely things within the scope of a project: flashing lights, moving images, whizzy stuff. If they don’t stick to what the stakeholders want and need (the constraints) it leads to confusion, inefficiency, gold-plating, a mess, never-ending writing, complexity… never shipping or shipping crap.
We don’t want crap.
We can use the MoSCoW method for our own writing. In writing a book, article or speech, the stakeholders (the important people) are you and the reader. Let’s have a quick look at the model.
- MUST – what must go in the book, speech or article – what’s critical. If you don’t include this you fail.
- SHOULD – important but not vitally necessary. This should be added, but only if you have time and word count available, and it works with the structure of the book.
- COULD – desirable but not necessary. This could be added but won’t make or break the book.
- WON’T (or would have) – waste, waste, waste! This is what you WON’T add in your book.
How do you use the model? After you’ve done your the first draft of your book, article, speech or whitepaper ideas outline (not writing, the outline) you measure each idea you want to write and place it on the chart below.
The MoSCoW Priority Slide
We (me and my brother Joe) introduced the priority slide in our first book, The Gorillas Want Bananas, to help small businesses and entrepreneurs decide what was important in their marketing. I use this tool on a daily basis for most of the stuff I have to get done – it helps me prioritise and avoid the priorities sliding.
To make a great Priority Slide you need constraints. Here we have Importance to the Reader on the vertical axis (reader = stakeholder), and your Ability to Deliver on the horizontal. Your ability to deliver covers your time available for this writing project (time to write and time to deliver if it’s a speech or word count for a book) and your knowledge on this subject (sometimes you really shouldn’t be writing this!)
Take each of the ideas you plan to write about (they’re probably on post it notes or cards in your Trello) and place them on the grid by asking yourself:
- Is it of the highest importance to the reader in moving them from where they are now to where they need and want to be?
- How well am I able to deliver this with my knowledge and the time available (space in book/article, time on stage)?
Anything falling in the first quadrant, bottom left, WON’T, goes in the bin – it’s waste! If it’s not important to the reader, and you don’t have time or knowledge to deliver it – BIN IT!
Anything falling in the top right quadrant is a MUST. You must work it into the speech, article, book.
Your goal: Organise your ideas, cut and discard, so that you create (write) simply – otherwise you are disrespecting your and the reader’s time.
The MoSCoW Priority Slide can be used for all activities that you’re doing – marketing, writing, business, family… When you know who the stakeholders are and what’s important to them, you can design a great priority slide with the right constraints, and make the decisions easily.
When you use the MoSCoW Priority Slide you can simplify what you need to do.
Solution: There are a few things, that when done well, will have the most impact. Simplify complexity.