Not too long ago, I was involved in launching a low-cost version of a premium software product. In briefing the executive team, an analytics director I worked with was presenting slide after slide of phrases like price elasticity and data-driven and market power, with lots of colorful charts. In the end, he arrived at a conclusion: when the price goes down, demand goes up.
A simple demand curve. And simple common sense. (I can hear you behavioral psychology people screaming about luxury brands and status signaling, but don’t worry, that wasn’t a factor here).
I thought of a Warren Buffett quote I had read: “In business, I look for economic castles protected by unbreachable moats.” This particular analytics director was trying to build his moat, by making his focus area sound so complex that nobody else would be able to understand it.
Everyone wants to feel needed. It’s part of our hardwiring as humans. But building a moat out of utter confusion isn’t the way to go about it. I’d even go so far as to say that if a senior leader can’t simply explain their domain, no matter how complex it may (or, more likely, may not) be, you’d have to seriously question the capability of that leader.
It’s the mark of a charlatan to try and explain simple things in complicated ways, and it’s the mark of a genius to explain complicated things in simple ways.Naval Ravikant
(PSA: One of my favorite books ever is Thing Explainer by Randall Munroe, which explains complex things like rockets using only the 1,000 most common words in the English language. Spoiler alert: rocket isn’t one of them, hence the term up goer. If you know any leaders like my Analytics friend, this would make a delightful gift!)
Someone with true knowledge can sift through the complexity like Picasso and his bulls. I know that when I truly feel confident with a subject, I find no shortage of analogies from daily life that can help me explain it to people with various levels of familiarity with the topic. When I’ve caught myself making word soup out of loosely-related jargon, I know that I’ve been caught off guard and don’t really know what I’m talking about (and by now, I hopefully have the confidence to avoid this altogether by saying “I don’t know” up front).
Company cultures are a funny thing, though, and a lot of people who have built moats within them have tried to do it by overstating the complexity of their specialization (and quite often gotten away with it). If nobody else understands Topic X, and you can make them believe the road to understanding Topic X is long and treacherous, then they’ll always need to depend on you, right? The best leaders, though, make reducing dependency on them one of their key priorities.
Rather than trying to build a moat out of unnecessary complexity, I encourage all of my peers and team members to build a moat out of becoming adept at explaining the complex interconnectedness of the workplace (or the world, for that matter) in a way a child can understand. It may not be valued (or even noticed) today, depending on the maturity of your environment, but I believe simplicity will always win the long game.
Another way I’ve frequently seen leaders make themselves a bottleneck is through being a travel martyr: the senior executive who feels the need to be everywhere, for many things that could easily be delegated to a team member. This person will often grumble quietly about the sacrifice he is making, but is deeply protective about his airline priority status (which the whole team knows is the true motivation for making himself such a bottleneck). The good news is that this person essentially keeps the airline industry alive and affordable for when you want to go visit Grandma.