If you’ve attended his workshops or read his book Building a Storybrand you will know that one of Donald Miller’s favourite mantras is, “If you confuse you lose.” He argues that most organizations over-complicate their messages and miss opportunities because people are wired for simplicity. 

“Our brains are always looking for ways to get what we want by expending the least amount of energy.” 

In fact, he argues that often inferior products win out in the marketplace because they have simpler, more straightforward messages or buying processes.

Reducing complexity and reducing “decidophobia” can have far-reaching benefits for our organizations.

If You Confuse You Lose: Reducing Complexity in the Workplace

To function, people are always looking for ways to minimize cognitive load. Like a computer with only so much Random-Access Memory (RAM), when our brains become overloaded it causes functionality to lag; we only have so much working memory. Research dating back to the 1950s by psychologist George Miller found that we only have room in our working memory for seven items at any one time (this is likely the source of the seven plus or minus two rule of thumb).

Reducing complexity in our world is difficult. Uncertainty abounds and the pace of change is accelerating, driven by increasing population, technology, globalization, and connectivity. We are now faced with more information, choice, and inputs than ever before.

When faced with too many pieces of information or choices, our response times and accuracy lag, and sometimes too much complexity can result in indecision. In a well-known marketing experiment, researcher Sheena Lyengar of Columbia University explored consumer buying behaviour by observing consumers shopping for jam in their grocery store. In the first part of the experiment, consumers were presented with six jam choices. On average, 30% made a purchase decision. 

Surprisingly, when the selection was increased to 24 flavour choices, the purchase rate dropped to just 3%. 

How could this be? Isn’t providing customers with more choice a better strategy? Surprisingly, research shows that exactly the opposite is true.  Providing buyers with too many options significantly decreases the chances of them buying at all and triggers what’s called “decidophobia”. 

In 2013, Forbes Magazine contributor Carmine Gallo found that for one large retail chain, the key to success was limiting consumer choices to no more than 2 or 3 options. In “The Paradox of Choice”, psychologist Barry Schwartz argues that too many choices create buyer anxiety to a point that it paralyzes them with indecision. Princeton philosopher Walter Kaufmann coined the term “decidophobia” to describe the stress created by too many choices resulting in fear and the inability to act.

Less is More – Minimizing Decision Fatigue

reducing decision fatigue

The ‘less is more’ concept does not just apply to consumer buying decisions. It applies in many other areas of business, and leaders should look throughout their company ecosystem for opportunities to simplify. Here are our top 8 areas to reduce some of that unnecessary business complexity:

1. Strategic Priorities

In 2011, consulting firm Booz and Company looked at revenue growth compared to the number of strategic priorities companies had.  They found that the highest revenue growth companies had only 1 to 3 firm-wide strategic priorities compared to lower-performing competitors who had as many as 10.

2.  Position and Brand Promise

The simpler we can craft our value propositions, the easier it is for our employees and the market to remember and repeat it. Phrases like “fifteen minutes could save you 15% or more on car insurance,” (Geico) or “we take your junk without you lifting a finger,” (1800 Got Junk) are simple, clear and memorable.

3. Target Market

Al Ries, the prolific author and thought-leader in branding and marketing, argues that the strength of any brand is inversely proportional to its breadth. The broader a brand’s target market, and the number of customers it intends to serve, the weaker its position in the industry.  Seth Godin says it a different way:

“A product for everyone is a product for no one”

4. Managing Workflow

Time-management experts repeatedly talk about working smarter not harder. The essence of good time management is to say no to many potential tasks and give more attention to just a few higher priorities. Essentially, doing fewer activities results in more results. When we spoke to Greg McKeown, author of Effortless, he said:

“We should want and should pursue paths that are easier to achieve the results we want.”

5. Product Benefits

Doug Hall, author and founder of Eureka Ranch, researched thousands of product brands. Hall found that products that used three or more benefits in their promotions were outperformed by-products promoting only one or two benefits.

6. Processes

It is the nature of work that some tasks and activities involve multiple steps. A simple example is making breakfast which involves the careful and time-bound steps of toasting then buttering the bread, frying the bacon, and poaching the eggs. Some workplace processes involve hundreds or even thousands of steps (think of an automobile assembly line). If there are ways to accomplish the same outcome with fewer steps, then that is the preferred process. Often processes that have been around for a long time in our organizations that have been implemented and adjusted by different people are prone to complexity drift and can be good targets for review.

7. Mechanization and Automation

Automated processes, thanks to technology and machinery, were and still are responsible for unprecedented economic growth from the start of the industrial revolution. Mankind would never be able to journey to space, speak to a friend in real-time across the world, or mass-produce products and services in volume and low cost without machines. 

Yet the more complex machines are the more difficult they are to diagnose and fix if they falter. Sadly, we live within the throwaway generation where the cost to repair something is often higher than replacing it. Automated and mechanized processes deliver power and speed that human beings cannot, yet it is important not to be lured into assuming a technology solution is always better. 

For instance, pen and paper still have benefits over electronic tablets for many applications. Pedal bikes triumph motorcycles in some circumstances, and tradespeople still rely on their hand tools daily.

8.  Organizational Structure and Size

We have heard that flatter organizations are better, allowing for decisions and information to flow easier through fewer levels. But the dark side of flatter organizations is that some managers may have too many direct reports. Various research suggests that managers of employees that require coaching, direction, and development while staying on top of their own individual responsibilities, should be limited to nine team members.

These are just a few of the ways that leaders can do some internal examination and look for ways to reduce complexity. With each step away from complexity and towards simplicity, the organization can potentially reduce time, costs, “decidophobia”, and become more adaptable.

Additional Resources 

Eager to learn more effective leadership strategies? Visit the Unleashed Podcast Library and don’t miss this season’s awesome lineup including New York Times bestselling author and renowned organizational psychologist Adam Grant.