Episode #190: Why You Need to Keep it Super Simple

Grad Conn

April 20, 202216 min read

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Your business is too complex. That’s because complexity sneaks into all of our workplaces, whether we want it to or not. It’s a hidden problem that’s hurting productivity and frustrating customers.

Keep it simple (or, at least, simpler) by focusing on the customer, and understanding what they want to buy from you, and why they want to buy it.

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All right. The Copernican Shift. Welcome. I am Grad Conn. And this is my little playhouse. We’re gonna have a little fun with marketing today. But I’m actually going to talk about strategy a bit. And I’m gonna quote someone I don’t quote very often, which is someone named Mr. Kevin Turner. Kevin Turner was the COO of Microsoft for many years. Reported to Steve Ballmer. Kevin Turner, I think a mixed legacy that he left behind, particularly around culture. Some famous stories, but Kevin was a good guy. And Kevin treated me really well. And I would say if it wasn’t for Kevin, Microsoft may not have made it. Kevin built and drove an enterprise sales force that became legendary, and did it through sheer will and effort. So kudos to Kevin and he certainly did well, but he did a lot of good as well.

So this is a Kevin Turner story. And I love this story. I’ll tell a quick other Kevin Turner-ism before I tell this, just to contextualize how he thought about things. So he had a meeting room, on his floor, just outside his office. Most of the senior executives at Microsoft have reasonably low key offices. This is not always true. I’m not gonna get into the exceptions. But Steve Ballmer, for example, worked in a very simple office with the Steelcase desk, you wouldn’t know it was a special office at all, it was just like a normal old-fashioned Microsoft Office that any product manager would sit in. And Kevin had a similar setup. But then he had a large conference room, because he had a lot of meetings, and people would meet in the conference room. And in his conference room, emblazoned across the wall… it was behind Kevin’s head, he would sit on the side of the table closest to the door… was the phrase, “if you have a question on whether this is the right thing to do, just ask: Is it right for the customer? And you’ll know the answer.” And I always thought that was a really great reminder on a day to day basis that if it’s right for the customer, it’s right for the company. And so that’s Kevin’s perspective. And like I said, he did a great job of building an amazing enterprise sales force. He had a lot of tics. But he was a leader in that people wanted to hear what he had to say. And you know, sometimes when you’re a leader, every tic you have is amplified. And I think that will happen a little bit with Kevin, definitely with Steve, for sure.

So let me talk a little bit about something he used to talk about all the time. And it would often be in context of competitive threats, or in the context of operational issues, the kinds of things that sometimes you don’t notice until they become too big a problem. And today, I’m going to frame it in the context of simplicity, and clarity in the way that you’re running an organization. When you’re not running an organization with simplicity or clarity, there’s this invisible cost that occurs as you pile on the number of products and pile on the number of features and pile on the number of markets you’re going after and pile on the number of segments you’re going after and pile on the number of audiences you’re going after and pile on… you know, just pile on.

And it’s an almost irresistible temptation, especially in a lot of smaller companies. Because there’s a sense of empire building as you expand your product portfolio, it feels exciting. It feels like you have more opportunity because you have more products available to sell. The challenge with this is that each additional product causes an exponential amount of additional work. And it’s exponential for two reasons. One is there’s simply more work to do. Okay, check. But number two, you’re rarely increasing the number of people who are doing all that work. So you’re making them context switch more rapidly. And each time someone context switches, they lose focus and as they lose focus, they lose time. So you have a half an hour productivity, context switch, lose 15 minutes, half an hour of productivity, context switch, lose 15 minutes, 15 minutes of productivity, context switch, 15 minutes lost, 10 minutes spent. Yeah, it adds up. And I would say that the context switching that is caused by complexity can  consume half of someone’s day.

And so without realizing it, the complexity instead of increasing the opportunities for the company actually cuts productivity in half. It’s very hard for people to see this. And this is where the Kevin Turner’s saying comes in. So in situations like this, and I’m gonna come back to the complexity stuff again in a second because I think there’s… I might spend a bit of time on this, generally. I might do a few shows on this, because there’s a lot here. It’s something people don’t attack with a lot of vigor, and it’s something that needs to be. Alright, so come back to this. Let’s go to Kevin. So Kevin had this great phrase, loved it so much. He would see something like this happening. Sometimes it’d be a competitive threat that we we weren’t paying attention to. For example, Salesforce started becoming a platform that could easily disintermediate the horizontal platforms of Microsoft, and we didn’t notice that until it was pretty late. AWS was out there. At one time, I don’t know if this is still true, but at one time, AWS was running more Microsoft workloads, like serving SQL, serving Office, etc, than Microsoft was. Like, wow, that’d be another example of this, and Kevin Turner would see this. And he would say, that’s carbon monoxide. That’s carbon monoxide. So a quick little chemical lesson here. Carbon monoxide is the exhaust that comes out of a car engine. And if you close your garage door and sit in your car for a while, all your troubles go away. The thing about carbon monoxide that most people don’t realize is that it is odorless. And it is invisible. That’s why many of us now have carbon monoxide detectors in our homes. Because if carbon monoxide starts to come into your home, you don’t notice until you go unconscious. And there’s actually a very short period of time, between losing consciousness and death with carbon monoxide. And actually Walt Disney’s parents died this way. He brought them out to California, put a space heater in their room because they were cold. It was operating on some sort of gas technology, it was emitting carbon monoxide. And when he went to go see his parents in the morning, they were dead. Deep source of guilt for him, obviously. So carbon monoxide, very dangerous. The thing about carbon monoxide, can’t see it, can’t taste it, can’t feel it. It sneaks in without you even noticing. And then next thing you know, you’re unconscious, and then you’re done.

I just love this as a business analogy, which is, I think complexity and the lack of simplicity is like carbon monoxide. What happens is that it seeps into the organization, you don’t even notice it, because you can’t see it, you can’t measure it, you can’t taste it, you can’t touch it, it’s just there. And just suddenly things get harder, and people start leaving and attrition goes up. And it’s just difficult. It’s just difficult. And it seems like the business is getting stuck. You see a lot of businesses actually get stuck in that kind of 100 to 200 million stage, a tremendous number of very promising startups stall out. And I would suggest that a lot of the reason for that is that they have added complexity, because to many of them… Oh, my gosh, we’re $100 million company, it just seems so beyond any dreams they had, right? So it’s a very exciting moment. And it’s an almost irresistible human urge to add a lot of complexity at that stage, we’re going to have these other products, we’re going to grow on these other lines, we’re going to have these new segments. You keep adding and adding. And so eventually, it is a disease that infects every company.

My other hilarious Kevin Turner story, and this is another positive story about Kevin, because he used to tell this story all the time. He had this great story to tell. He told us I think at the… we had a platinum club retreat in Monaco. And he was talking to a group of us about the funniest things he’s seen at Microsoft. And he started a project on simplicity. He wanted to create more simplicity for the product lineup and for Microsoft operations in general. And he said, I knew we were in trouble when the simplicity team came into my office with an 85-page PowerPoint deck. It’s a great comment. To hack away at the complexity doesn’t often lead to simplicity. It’s like making the tax code simpler. Over time, they tried to simplify the tax code, they add pages to the tax code, which is like I think the greatest irony of all,

So, let’s go back to your situation or how you think about your company, and little things to look for. Do you have one single product with a large TAM that you can just focus on myopically? Or do you keep adding new line extensions? Do you have a single customer segment? Do you have a single customer type? And what I find is that when it gets hard, what we tend to do is instead of saying, I’m just going to get to more CIOs, let’s say CIOs in midsize companies are your target, okay? Instead of going I’m going to get to all the midsize companies CIOs. It’s like, well, what about CTOs? Or what about CMOs? Or let me find another target. And that makes it really hard because they’re a different language, different way of talking, you need a new deck and a new way of kind of imagining how to speak to them. And you’re dealing with different kinds of buying committees. Everything gets a lot more complicated. And I think that when something gets really hard against your chosen target, really dig deep on why it’s gotten hard, what is the core problem, and don’t fall into the temptation of adding more decorations on the tree to balance it out. But just try to power through the issue that you’re running into with your original designated audience and your originally designated segment target. And maybe you were wrong, maybe your TAM was incorrect, maybe you didn’t understand the demand for the product. Fair. But know that before you start adding more things.

So that’s a little bit of simplicity, and carbon monoxide. And I want to end this with a little bit of a tease, a bit on how people buy. And it goes a little bit to this issue of simplicity, because I think another problem, particularly in B2B, is that we tend to sell based on all the features and functions that we have. And I get that. I mean, this is a little bit why this is called the Copernican Shift. You know, the whole point of the Copernican Shift is that we tend to view the universe from our own viewpoint, that’s why people thought the Earth was flat, and that the sun went around the Earth. Both of those are not true, by the way. Just quick, quick update.

But it’s because from a person-centric point of view, it does look like the planet is mostly flat, it doesn’t seem curved. And in this sort of scene, the sun comes up on one side and goes down on the other side. Looks sort of like it’s going around the planet. So that is the observer’s point of view. But the reality, of course, is that the Earth is round and circling around a sun. And that insight, that ability to understand what’s really going on, unlocked the scientific revolution, and it can unlock a similar revolution in your own organization.

I would say that, I’ll kind of do an example of this. So we have product A, and Product A does all these really cool things. And we’re very excited about it. And every year we pound a pile of new features into it, and the engineering team excitedly says this release has 750 new features or whatever that is. By the way, that probably is not in the service of simplicity. And everyone’s all excited about what it does and how great it is. But why do buyers buy? And in B2B, all buyers are essentially buying the same way. It’s an unusual category this way, because virtually all products meet this criteria. B2B people buy… you ready? To advance their career. You might be thinking, Yeah, but they’re buying it to do this or fix that or manage this risk or reduce these costs or increase that revenue? Yeah. But why are they doing those things? To advance their career. And when they’re looking at you, and they’re looking at your product, they’re thinking, will this advance my career? And what are the chances I’ll get fired for buying this line? So that’s the top side and bottom side? That’s what’s going on. But I dare you to find a single B2B website that gets at that issue.

Now, obviously, you don’t sell it by saying, accelerate your career with B2B Product X. That’s not gonna work. Check. But why not visualize people who’ve been successful in their careers because they bet on that product? Why not have more customer awards? Customers awards are great because people like to talk about the award they got with their management. Why not really celebrate the people who champion you? Talk about it, talk about what they’ve done, why they’re special. Put them on billboards in Times Square, make it all about them. And no one’s really done that. It’s very interesting. The second thing is, there’s a great Gartner quote, which is the only thing harder than selling enterprise software, is buying enterprise software. Isn’t that great? The only thing harder than selling enterprise software is buying enterprise software. And why is it so hard? One thing that I will bet every one of you listening, I’ll take all comers, is that if you look at the “closed loss reason why” column in your CRM, it will have different competitors that you’ve lost to. But the number one reason, if you’re doing it correctly, entering closed loss. And I would encourage you if you’re not entering closed loss to get on that. But you will see the number one reason is: no decision. No decision is the number one reason. It can be up to 50% of the reasons for closed loss. Why no decision? Let’s go to that career thing. I can’t make a decision. I’m nervous. I’m scared. I don’t know how to do this. I don’t know how to get people aligned. It’s too hard. So if you’re selling B2B software, what’s your real job? Is it to tell people your speeds and feeds? Well, yeah, I mean, I guess at some point that needs to be communicated. But isn’t your job to help that buyer buy? It’s a concept called buyer enablement. Marshall Kirkpatrick talks about it a lot. Follow him, he’s got some great content out there as well. Buyer enablement. Don’t go in just talking about yourself, talk about the category. Talk about your competitors, bring your competitors materials in with you, annotate them, show how everything fits together, show where maybe a competitor is a better match for that buyer.

The best thing I think that can happen is to get a buyer to say I’m not going to buy your product. But I want to tell you the buyer enablement materials he gave me helped me make a really good decision and I found a company that’s going to be right for us. That’s awesome. If you can get that to happen, obviously, that’s not what every conversation wants to be. But when that happens, that means you’re really doing the right job of helping people understand how to make a decision. You gotta bet that you’ve got a good product and that you’re gonna win the day. But what you’re really going after is you’re not really going after those competitive head to hit situations, you’re going to win or lose those on your own merit no matter what. What you’re going after, is you’re trying to reduce the no decision. That is the opportunity in every B2B enterprise today. The no decision, the size of that segment, dwarfs anything you’re going after. And going back to the simplicity point, you know, before abandoning an audience and before abandoning a segment or before, and maybe even better, before adding an audience, before adding the segment. Why don’t you get the no decision down to close to zero? Do that first. Figure out what’s going on there, why the no decision is happening. It’ll make a big difference. And I would argue that closed loss to no decision is a type… yeah, you got it… thanks for listening… it’s a type of carbon monoxide. All right. Watch out for carbon monoxide in your own business. Stay focused, focus, focus focus. As always, thanks for listening. I’m Grad Conn.

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