Being Too Smart May be Hazardous to Your Success

The more one knows, the more difficult it is to find a simple solution to a complex problem

If you have been following the posturing and negotiations (a term used loosely) between President Obama and the leaders of Congress seeking a solution to the budget-busting costs of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, you can stop following right now and start getting a life: It ain’t gonna happen. And yet, your time and effort won’t be totally wasted since there is a lesson to learn from these shenanigans that can give you a clear advantage over most others in the business world.

Finding a way to maintain the benefits provided to those who depend on these programs for their very life and survival, while, at the same time, EntitlementProtestreforming the programs in a way that reduces cost and keeps them economically viable is, most assuredly, a complex challenge. So what is the congressional methodology being used to solve to this conundrum? Well, you take those who know the most about these programs – the policy wonks – and lock them in a room with instructions to find a solution, or else.

That sounds fine, but there’s a sticker here and it’s this: Because the experts charged with resolving the problems with these benefit programs are so immersed in the byzantine and excruciating minutia of the plans, they are inclined to dance around the edges of these issues with tweaks, tinkers and minor modifications, rather than take a blank-slate, zero-sum approach that would make it infinitely easier to find a clear and simple solution.

We shouldn’t be surprised, then, when the solutions that waft from their smoke-filled rooms are as predictable as they are lame. The political leaders are now engaged in a heated debate over the value of combining Medicare Part A and B, increasing Medicare co-payments and deductibles, while putting a fixed cap on the total lifetime expenses the participants will pay. When it comes to Social Security, the recommendation so far is to reduce the amount of cost-of-living increases by changing how the cost of living is calculated. None of us may understand all the technical jargon these proposals are wrapped in, but we can understand that none of these actions will solve the fundamental problem of entitlements. Left to their own devices, these politicos will, if anything, make the plans even more complex. But that is what happens when those who know too much don’t know enough to make the complicated simple. If you filed your 1040 with attachments this week, you’ll have a small taste of what I mean.

A Widespread Problem that Creeps and Grows

It is not just the political process that allows politicos and bureaucrats to make a living by taking simple issues and making them complex. Nor are politicians the only ones who believe that the answer to a complex problem is an even more complex solution. This same idiotic philosophy permeates the business world, too.

As much as companies and organizations may talk about the virtue of innovation and change, the reality is that most are hostile to real change. This attitude encourages taking the path of least resistance to change by implementing incremental actions to “fix” the past, rather than seeking simple solutions that converts change into opportunity. The result is increasing complexity in the operations of an organization, when it is simplicity that is most needed.

As frustrating as this may be, it does have a positive side. Anyone can take a simple problem and make it complicated, but those who develop the ability to respond to a complicated problem with a simple solution will have a clear advantage over those mired in complexity. When you come right down to it, success is as simple as that.

If success in business is what you seek, the path will be easier when you focus on knowing more about the solution, than you know about the problem. The reason that Medicare seems like such an intractable problem is because those trying to fix it know more about the problem than they do the solution.

Problem-solving should start with the recognition that complexity is the coward’s way to solve a problem. It takes courage, competency and confidence to be simple. Complexity is the refuge of a weak and insecure mind. There is a culturally embedded philosophy in business – supported by the business schools and hordes of consultants – that welcomes complexity. The convoluted thinking is that making the problem more confusing is a way for the powers to be to seem smarter and better than all the rest. It is an attitude that screams out, “If I understand the problem and you don’t, then I have power over you.” Among the obvious problems that this attitude creates is that when plans, tasks and objectives are perceived as too complicated, paralysis of action sets in; people have a difficult time getting their minds around the problem, identifying a solution and putting it into place.

If you want to be successful as a manager or a leader, you first have to understand that knowing too much about a problem can actually inhibit your ability to find a solution. The key to avoiding complexity and concentrate on simplicity is to start with the solution, not the problem. This may sound too simple to work, but let me give you an example.

Problem-Solving the LifeUSA Way

When my company – LifeUSA – was just starting out, we knew that the only way to compete against the entrenched giants of the insurance industry was to clearly differentiate what we offered. It was difficult to create a distinction from a product standpoint (which we ultimately did), so the focus was on the more obvious – service.

The insurance industry has always had a very complicated administrative and processing system and companies have used this as an excuse for poor service–especially for agents selling the product. At the time LifeUSA was launched, the average time it took for a company to issue a new policy was 48 days. This was frustrating for both the agent and the new policyholder, to say the least. In an effort to differentiate the service of LifeUSA from the other companies, we promised that once the agent had submitted all the application paperwork, the new policy would be issued in 48 hours and if not, we would pay the agent $100. We called this the “48-hour challenge.” This was a simple solution . . . . a simple definition and standard for service that both those in the home office and the field could understand, if not believe was possible. Of course this promised solution drew howls of protest from systems and administrative people and scoffs of disbelief from the field.

Was the legal and administrative task of issuing a new policy complicated? Yes. But LifeUSA did not approach the challenge by attempting to make Simpleincremental changes to the existing system, but by focusing on the solution and creating a new system to achieve it. (Something that would also work to solve the problems with Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.) Starting with the solution and working back, rather than with the problem and trying to work forward, LifeUSA broke each part of the process down to simple steps, but steps that were simple to do. And then we did them.

The result was a level of service provided by LifeUSA that was unmatched in the industry. And this played a key role in helping LifeUSA achieve unmatched growth as well. The payment of the $100 for failure to meet the 48-hour challenge was a rare occurrence, because home office personnel took pride in meeting the challenge and would go to great effort to avoid missing the benchmark of service.

The LifeUSA 48-hour challenge was an example of how a complicated problem can be made simple. The home office people knew exactly what the standards of good service were and the customers (the agents) knew what to expect. From a management perspective, the results of the 48-hour challenge were a simple way to measure the quality of service being provided.

Some would suggest that it was easy for a new company, with not much business, to offer this service, but very difficult for larger established companies. Not true. LifeUSA was still promising the 48-hour service 15 years later when receiving 5,000 applications a week, just as it had when receiving 50 a week.

The point here is that simple is better. When you focus on the problem, rather than the solution, the whole process becomes complex. The more you know about the problem – as with Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid – the more difficult it is to focus on and achieve a solution.

And the Moral of the Story …

The world is awash with complexity. For some, complexity is a defense against decisiveness or a disguise for insecurity and incompetence. Others are paralyzed by complexity forced upon them. Anyone has the ability to make simple things complicated, but it takes talent and confidence to make complicated things simple.

The irony is that the more one understands and focuses on the problem, the more difficult it is to find the solution. When it comes to problems, those with the deepest knowledge are inclined to tinker rather than transform. While those who focus on the simplicity of a solution are inclined to change the system to eliminate the problem. Those who succumb to or create complexity may manage the world, but those who neuter complexity with simplicity change the world.

There is a lot of competition on the road to success. The best way to pass by the traffic and achieve success is to differentiate what you offer that others do not. In today’s world, the best way for an individual to differentiate their ability is to take what others see as complicated and make it simple.


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