Why is it so hard to do a few things, big?

Who strive – you don’t know how the others strive
To paint a little thing like that you smeared
Carelessly passing with your robes afloat,
Yet do much less, so much less, someone says,
(I know his name, no matter) – so much less!
Well, less is more, Lucrezia.

 (‘Andrea del Sarto’, Robert Browning, 1855)

Less is more. If there’s one piece of consistent feedback I’ve received or had to give over many years of building or working on brands, that’s it. The push for simplifying, choosing and focusing on fewer, activities, so that they can be scaled up. It seems so hard. Is it the fear of making sacrifices? The wistfulness that comes from an opportunity not brought to market? The tyranny of choice? Or is it simply too many voices; too many opposing views; too much desire to please too many people? Or the inability of consensual companies to make decisions?

The theme cropped up again on a client’s project just the other week and got me reflecting on how this problem remains so persistent, spanning the years, never waning in the face or ‘learning organisations’ or good, old-fashioned common sense. It’s a ‘sticky’ issue no doubt. But why? There seem to be a few common denominators.

Thinking in plan years not consumer years: of course, you’ve got to be practical. You have to write a brand or business plan for the ‘next Fiscal’; budgets need to be cut; revenue investments divvied out or zero-based; resource allocated; endless negotiations with the sales guy about how much they can’t sell concluded. The business focus becomes therefore, the business cycle not the consumer cycle. If such a ‘cycle’ exists of course, because rarely do consumers think in chunks of time, except when planning holidays or Christmas. Most people don’t write annual Life Plans that include, amongst other things, which brands they are going to take notice of this year. A pity perhaps, but actually no. You have more time rather than less to impact their lives.

Not having a clear purpose: there has been a penchant in recent years to write purpose statements that need decoding to work out what the brand or company is actually trying to achieve or where it’s headed. But a purpose statement – subjective, written from the heart, directive, stretching – is vital, not only to help people decide whether this is the business they want to invest their life in, but also to help all the major decisions the company makes, up to and including what its brands choose to do. Without a purpose, all bets are off. Any activity can be justified on the basis of a loud, persistent voice, the point of view of some senior executive or perhaps because of an intriguing or compelling piece of data or half-truth (the latter often gained from a store visit to Asda in Mansfield on a dreary November evening and quickly exploded up to represent the broad opinion of the Western Hemisphere). A Purpose is the start and the end game. Are we heading in the right direction if we do this? Should we repeat? Other than being, when done properly, hugely engaging, a purpose statement is your first and last line of defence in doing less and doing it bigger.

‘Now’ not just ‘New’: I’d like to be able to scientifically claim that there is a strong and direct correlation between the small number of business activities that drive 80% of the margin of your business. I can’t, but I will, because you know it. There is a correlation between the ability of the ‘tail’ of a company (brands, customers) to attract a disproportionate share of focus and attention relative to their (lack of) commercial return. Why? Because “it’s new”. Or “interesting”. Or a “huge opportunity”. The “revenue stream of tomorrow”. Or part of my personal hobby farm. Like with many things in life, the grass seems plush and verdant over there. In fact, look! Butterflies and buzzy bumblebees swarming over the lavender and small children, giddy with excitement frolicking across a field! The prime job of leadership is to keep the business honest: spend 80% of our time on those few big levers that keep us thriving now and the rest on those that show future promise. Hold firm and don’t get bored.

Drive and Support: it’s staggering how often companies forget which parts of their business drive the topline and which support it. If all the functions have equal voices around the table, then the ability to prioritise drive activities become woolier, more a debate than a directive. If you’re a brand business, chances are that the drive comes through brands and sales. If your own label, chances are it’s production and sales. If you offer legal services, chances are that it’s the legal beagles who bring in the tasty bacon. Prioritise these functions unapologetically. Oh, and if you work in them and are feeling more special, more loved, be prepared. With focus comes accountability and tough love.

Not saying “bye-bye”: How many products or brands do you have that limp along? How many are on life support? How many do you fool yourself remain a ‘brand’ (when actually they’re just servicing a habit not adding value)? The inability – or fear – of confronting the rear end of the product life cycle has unintended consequences right across the business. From complexity in the supply chain to complexity in the managers’ brain. Spring clean. Wield the long knives. Have a Car Boot / Yard sale. Call it what you will. But make sacrifices: create the physical space and the mental space to allow focus. And celebrate their lives with a party. They’ve played their role. You’re here today because of them. Share the learnings. And move on.

7 plus minus 2It’s almost 60 years since George Miller published the seminal work, “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits On Our Capacity For Processing Information” (Psychological Review, 1956) – what became known as ‘Miller’s Law’. It has been much discussed, cited and challenged, but the basic tenet has proven sound. As humans – as managers – as consumers – we can only process a small number of things. If you fragment your brand activity; if you don’t make it beefy and bold; if your consumers don’t get hit squarely between the eyes with scale; it just won’t get processed. You’ll remain unnoticed.

Think as a consumer. Be purposeful. Don’t be beguiled by ‘new’ over ‘now’. Focus. Sacrifice. Then fully commit.

David Preston is founder of The Crow Flies, a research, strategy and innovation company that discovers and maps the direct route to success for categories and brands. Get in touch. And be prepared for focus and sacrifice. david@thecrowflies.co.uk; +44 (0) 1283 295100.

© The Crow Flies, 2015