Feb 14, 2016

Achieve much more by doing a lot less

My sister recently gave me a tremendously useful birthday present.

It is a pen with a button. When the button is pressed, a recorded voice barks out: “No.” I should take it to every meeting, and use it on lots of phone calls. Because the truth is that I take on too much: I should try to focus on the priorities, and not get distracted, as I so often do.

As Henry David Thoreau wrote: “Our lives are frittered away by detail; simplify, simplify.” The best managers I’ve worked with understand the essentials in their business and possess a true sense of urgency. Just as all my success has come from a handful of investments in great companies, so talented entrepreneurs know the key is not to try to do too many things but to concentrate on a small number of things that truly matter — and execute them well.

A big part of the problem is that we are bombarded with proposals and ideas and meetings and dinners and deals and conferences and speaking engagements and God knows what. Life in the 21st century can be a vast flow of interruptions designed to distract you from what should be your prime concern. It is hard to drill deep and deliver quality when you are frenetically dealing with a dozen projects at once.

As I get older I have less patience than ever for irrelevant stuff. My tolerance for wasting time has diminished — I want to use what I have left productively. As Sir Arthur Helps, a 19th century aphorist, said: “Almost all human affairs are tedious. Everything is too long. Visits, dinners, concerts, plays, speeches, pleadings, essays, sermons, are too long.” My equivalent list for today’s managers would be: “Everything is too long. Business plans, management accounts, board meetings, presentations, conferences, budgets, press releases, memos.” One of the joys of email is that it tends towards the brief. Often the best emails are very short.

It is perhaps more difficult to identify the few metrics that make a difference than just to include everything. Drawing up long lists of “key performance indicators” looks more impressive and keeps one endlessly busy. But busy in a constructive way, or simply busy for the sake of being busy? A brilliant money maker once said to me that he could analyse any business based on just three numbers — sales, margins and cash. When I see 50 pages of spreadsheets featuring hundreds of numbers and my head begins to swim, I tend to agree with him.

Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking is about the power of first impressions. He argues that snap judgments can be far more effective than considered decisions. As long as one avoids prejudices and preconceptions, he believes that it can be better to trust the subconscious mind — hunches and instincts — than rely on protracted deliberation. Certainly, some of my best choices have been based more on gut instinct than extensive referencing.

Unfortunately we live in a technocratic age with an absolute belief in big data — a faith that the accumulation of more information is certain to lead to better decisions, more advantage and greater wisdom. I fear very often it leads instead to confusion and boredom. Many corporate bosses are poor communicators because they believe more means better, when in fact the opposite applies. Be it a strategy paper, a staff appraisal, an investment analysis, a contract or an annual report, most commercial exchanges would be improved by being more concise.

The big stuff doesn’t need lots of waffle. Sometimes old technology was better. Telegrams were charged by the word, so they turned brevity into an art form. For example, powered flight, one of the most significant inventions of all time, was proclaimed in a telegram by the Wright brothers from North Carolina in 1903 thus: “Successful four flights Thursday morning.” We live in an era of short attention spans — all of us could learn from Wilbur and Orville Wright about economy in our language.

My father gave me two excellent pieces of advice about expressing myself clearly. On writing, he said: “Use shorter sentences.” On giving speeches, he said: “Always make your speech shorter than the audience are expecting.” As Harry Beckwith wrote in his book Selling the Invisible: “The more you say, the less people hear.” It takes discipline to retain what matters and strip out the superfluous. Doing so is an excellent mental exercise. The challenge is: how do I transmit a compelling message in the minimum number of words?

Of course, being succinct should not mean that you sacrifice clarity or accuracy. But often precision actually means using fewer words and less time than vagueness: excessive verbiage is frequently a cover for ignorance or muddled thinking.

A marvellous poem by Andrew Marvell has the lines: “But at my back I always hear/Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near.” We should remember his words, focus on the imperatives, and forget the rest.