The first spreadsheet I ever used was Lotus123. I’m not exactly sure of the year, but it was sometime in the mid-eighties. Back then, the promise of this cutting-edge invention was that because of its relative efficiency compared to pencil and paper, spreadsheets would lead to a tremendous amount of time savings.

Somehow, though, it didn’t work out that way.  

Yes, spreadsheets were more efficient. But thanks to their ease of use, we could now run a nearly infinite number of “what if” scenarios.

No longer was it necessary to choose a few likely possibilities before moving forward with what was sure to be a laborious analysis. The spreadsheet “freed” us to try a little bit of everything.

Not to say that today’s analyses are not better — they often are. But time savings? Not so much.

This is just one example of a business process where technology has given us more options, but also greater complexity as we are tempted to try them all.

Surveyed to Death

These days, and perhaps because it has gotten so easy to create and then send one through email or text, customer surveys are everywhere. What was once an occasional request from a business or company visited has turned into a near-daily annoyance. The result is that the response rates for any given survey are far lower than they once were.

Surveys have gotten longer, too, thanks to the ease of creation and post-survey analysis.

For example, recently I bought a new investment “product” through my financial advisor. Soon after, his company sent me an online survey. At first, I was happy to provide a bit of feedback and support my advisor. But after a few general questions, the survey got more and more detailed and seemed never-ending. Eventually, I shut it down part way through and ended up feeling worse about the company than when I began. (Maybe they should send me a survey about the survey?)

Compare this experience to the “micro-surveys” developed by a client of mine for her clients: pharmaceutical companies seeking information from doctors. These consist of a handful of questions that can be answered on a smartphone in less than five minutes.

The success of her business — both from the client side and the participant side — is largely due to being able to isolate what matters and boil it down to only a few questions that lead to actionable feedback. She has found that if you can focus your questions tightly and keep the survey very brief, people will give you good, useful responses.

Too Many Metrics

Years ago, I worked with a division of the American Nurses Association that had developed the concept of Magnet Hospitals. They identified 14 “forces of magnetism” that allowed some hospitals to remain fully staffed, even during a nationwide nursing shortage. These became the basis for their Magnet Hospital Certification process.

They were having success with this certification process, but it was just too complex. We recommended they simplify; ultimately, they boiled things down to a more manageable five groupings. Overall, the new approach was easier to evaluate and ultimately, more informative.

Simplify Whenever Possible

How do we get back to simplifying our work? Three questions to consider:

1. What do you really need to know?

What are the one or two key things that will guide your future decisions?

In my investment company example earlier, I would think that knowing if I were satisfied with the experience (or not) would be paramount — and determined by one or two quick questions. Then, if a significant number of customers don’t report satisfaction, further action can be taken.

But the company never learned about my overall perspective since I abandoned the survey before finishing.

2. Which metrics are interrelated?

Think hard about which metrics might be related to others on your list; how might measuring one inform you about the others being considered? 

For example, a customer service organization might track both customer satisfaction ratings and “first call resolution.” But if they find these measures move in lock step, only one needs to be tracked (likely customer satisfaction). If satisfaction levels decline, that would serve as an indicator that customer touch points need to be reviewed in more detail.

A complex dashboard — with great detail about multiple factors — is often difficult to interpret, and it can be hard to determine when the results indicate the need to take action.

3. How can we communicate more simply and consistently?

When I was VP of strategy and marketing for a regional discount department store, the company was not performing well and each department was tracking its own set of issues. The new CEO began talking consistently to all employees about the three issues he cared about: product quality, product availability, and reasonably friendly service. (This was a New England-based chain — reasonably friendly can be a big ask!)

Those three elements — repeated dozens of times a day, every day — were very memorable. It helped each department focus on identifying ways to move in a positive direction on all three. A longer list might have provided more specific guidance, but would not have been as powerful a way of communicating what’s important.


When it comes to information, whether in the form of surveys or business metrics, I understand the temptation to gather as much of it as possible.

But just because you can, technically, doesn’t mean you should. Complexity has cost and it’s easy to fool ourselves into thinking that the more data and factors we look at, the better.

Often, simpler can be more effective.


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