Thursday, February 22, 2007/
If the solution to your principal business problem lacks simplicity and elegance, it’s probably not a solution.
Truth and beauty
Last week, after discussing how conference companies experienced a doubling in production times, increased competition and pricing pressure, it’s now time to look at the solution.
None of the strategies adopted to this point had worked. Poaching conference producers from the competition only led to a bidding war from which no company benefited, although the producers themselves did very nicely. Each new idea the company developed was quickly copied and an increased marketing spend for each event suffered from rapidly diminishing returns. Quite simply, the sector was stuffed.
What to do? After much thought, we hit on the idea of a conference speakers’ database. We gathered all the conference brochures we could find and entered the speakers’ details, along with their area of expertise, into a database. After a few months, we had thousands, covering almost every area of business. Then, instead of cold calling contacts for speaker recommendations, we went to the database and did a search for those individuals who had already spoken on related topics.
The results were astounding. It usually took about 20 calls to secure one speaker. With 16 speakers on a program, that meant about 320 calls. Using the database, we were getting one speaker with every three calls. Conference production time fell from almost a month to a few days.
Best of all, this simple change provoked a radical overhaul of the production process. A few experts were employed to produce conference programs. Telemarketers were then employed to recruit the speakers – we found it was more useful to have someone who knew how to get past a secretary than someone familiar with the subject matter. Others were employed to update the speakers database. One person’s job had been separated into three tasks, each allocated to someone with particular skills for it.
The company’s finances were transformed. But it was based on a very simple premise: People who had spoken at a conference in the past would be far more disposed to speaking again at a future conference than those who had never featured at all.
Mathematicians would appreciate the simplicity. On those rare occasions I have dared engaging one in conversation, I loon learned that if the solution to the problem on which they are working runs to pages of calculations it was, in all likelihood, wrong.
I suspect the same goes for most business problems. A complicated solution almost always fails whereas a successful solution usually exhibits a simplicity that strikes at the core of the problem. In business, we’re usually building frameworks around a problem to contain it rather than address it.
This is why many organisations suffer from an excess of what might be called “managerialism”. Founded on the belief that measuring alone equates to management, such organisations become overly bureaucratic, develop poisonous cultures because most employees spend their time filling forms rather than solving problems, and fail in their most elementary tasks. And when they do, the solution is to “put in place the proper procedures to make sure this never happens again”. The language itself gives it away.
I am no expert on Keats, I don’t even recall the club he played for, but I do remember one of his famous phrases:
Beauty is truth, truth beauty, – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know
So if the solution to your primary business problem is awkward and cumbersome, then it’s also probably wrong.
PS: Sadly, no one picked the “right” answer but James Manche did come up with an interesting view of how to address the problem, for which he wins a free premium subscription. Well done, James.