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Simplicity is hard. That’s why it is valuable.
I am subject to one criticism more than any other. That what I do, and what I write, is too complex, too difficult to understand.
I am rather bad at dealing with this criticism, for two reasons.
Firstly, accepting that what you do is too hard for other people to grasp feels like arrogance. Like you are showing off about your own intelligence.
This is, of course, nothing to show off about. Communicating in a simple fashion ideas that you have spent years understanding and expanding, is what takes the greatest intelligence. Accepting that you can’t properly explain the things you say and do is really an acceptance of failure.
Which brings me to the second reason I struggle with this criticism: it means more work. I have to go back to the drawing board and revise and refine what I’ve done. I have to think harder, work harder.
This has become a constant process for me. Right now I’m re-writing my executive training course in Applied Futurism, teaching executives how to understand and respond to this age of high frequency change. New dates will be announced shortly (drop me a line if you’re interested in attending).
It’s had good feedback to date, but this time it will be even simpler. And as a result, more accessible, and more useful.
Engaging with a process
Getting to this point has led me to think more about how humans engage with information, and particularly with instructions. Instructions need context — without it they are meaningless. But everyone in my training sessions, or using my tools, brings with them their own unique context, depending on their cultural reference points, role, seniority and more. How do I ensure the relevance of the instructions so that they connect with the greatest possible number of people?
So far I have found three options:
- Lowest common denominator
What are the social, cultural and workplace touchpoints with which the greatest number of people identify? Focusing on these means you should at least reach a large proportion of the audience. But there will always be people you miss, and always the risk that your experience is so different to that of the audience that you miss people.
2. Query their experience
You can take a question and answer approach to key instructions and information into people’s own experience, letting them fill in their own context to the process. This should reach everyone equally, assuming they can articulate their own experience, but it places a greater burden on the audience, and there is always the risk that their experience doesn’t fit your expected parameters.
3. Primal drivers
The third, and perhaps most brutal option, is to focus on the bottom tiers of Maslow’s hierarchy: the most fundamental human needs that we all share. If you can communicate your instructions as a way to address these fears, risks and needs, then you should be able to find a language that the whole audience can understand.
I’m sure there are other ways to reach a large proportion of the audience and make new information and instructions accessible. These are working well for me so far but I’m always open to learning new ways. How do you do it?
With the exception of the occasional pub quiz polymath, most of us have our specialist subjects when the microphone comes out on a Wednesday night at the local. As you might expect, I’m happy to have a crack at science questions. I’m also pretty good on 80s & 90s pop lyrics. But throw me a question on geography, history beyond the last century, or sport, and I will likely flounder.
We tend to think we are the subject matter experts in our own workplaces. We spend hours there each day, toiling away at the same problems, getting to know our own industries. Take a pop quiz on your industry and you would probably do pretty well.
But this presents us with two problems.
Firstly, everyone else in your industry is a subject matter expert too. How can you differentiate, personally or as a company, when you all have the same subject matter expertise?
Secondly, if the answers we need come from knowledge of our own sectors, why do we ever get disruption? Why do companies get defeated by new entrants and challengers, arguably with less accumulated knowledge?
In reality, many of the questions we face — and the answers to those questions — come from beyond our own sectors of specialism. Sometimes it’s new ways of working, systems or technologies, developed in an adjacent sphere that might be transformative to our own. It might be someone else’s solution to a very similar problem.
These are not ‘unknown unknowns’, but rather ‘unseen unknowns’: questions and answers that exist and are understood, but that are outside of our current domain.
When looking to the future, part of the challenge is imagining things that are yet to be, anywhere. But much of it is helping people to see the unseen, channeling lessons from adjacent spaces into their domain so that they can see how they can — and likely will — be applied.
The question is often not ‘if’ but when. And the answer only comes from looking beyond your own domain.
I used to dream about flying. A lot. The dreams were extremely vivid. I knew exactly where I was and when I woke I could still remember the mental trigger for my flight powers. A virtual muscle I had to flex to allow me to lift off from the ground. The disappointment I felt when it didn’t work in the waking world was crushing.
Last week, I flew. Not on a plane, though I did that as well, but on a theme park ride. Actually, it was loosely shaped like an aircraft, albeit one from the last-but-one Century, as apparently stitched together by ‘The Tailor of Ulm’, a man with (ultimately unsuccessful) dreams of flight.
The Hohenflug (and rides like it) is, for me, the best fairground ride in the world. It combines the usual thrills of speed and g-forces, with a measure of control: using two handles you can independently control each wing attached to your seat, allowing you to spin right around, barrel-rolling as you fly through the air. There is even a points system for the most rolls.
Why am I writing about this?
I find myself making two points frequently when talking about the future of digital entertainment. First, that even with our current sophistication in gaming and virtual reality, there is nothing to match the visceral thrill of physical motion. Secondly, the greater the proportion of our experiences that are digital, the more we will crave — and value — those physical experiences. I think we need to consider this more in education, culture and city planning.
I’m seeing more and more exercise trails spring up around urban parks, but these offer little in the way of an adrenaline rush. I wonder if we can’t incorporate more excitement into our cities, not just for kids but for adults — andI don’t mean what might traditionally be termed ‘adult entertainment’.
How about more adult-scale slides, zipwires, and abseils? Can we make the existing attractions — karting, laserquest, indoor snow slopes — more accessible to a wide range of people? Can we introduce kids to these things earlier, giving those who might not get access a taste of a wider range of physical activity? And can we make it more acceptable for adults to just take time out for a dose of adrenaline.
Digital entertainment is cheaper than physical entertainment in many ways. This is what undermines the frequent complaint from conservative commentators about people on benefits having a big TV. Of course they do: one TV provides hours of entertainment for the price of just a few trips out with the family once you factor in travel, food, equipment and all the other costs. If we are to avoid digital entertainment becoming the overwhelming choice, further feeding our current obesity epidemic, we have to ensure that the physical alternatives are not just available, not just accessible, but normal: a core part of our culture.