Why large companies act like seven-year-olds

Gather around, children. Managers could learn a lot from you.
Gather around, children. Managers could learn a lot from you.
Image: Getty Images/Sean Gallup
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This originally appeared on LinkedIn. You can follow Bruce Kasanoff here 

Life in a large company can be a lot like being a mouse in a maze designed by research scientists. It seems deliberately laid out to drive you crazy.

A few months ago, I wrote about my Theory of Seven, which says that when communicating with large groups of people (i.e. customers or employees), you should be clear and memorable enough that even a seven-year-old could understand you.

In the conversations I’ve had since that time, it occurred to me that over-complicated corporate strategies and messages produce the sort of out-of-control behaviors that seven-year-olds display when they are not managed properly.

Before I explain, let me make one caveat. I am not suggesting you talk down to people. In one-on-one conversations, you should always treat the other person with intelligence and respect. Intelligent questions demand intelligent answers. This article address what it takes to manage and communicate with large groups of people, not how you interact individually.

Controlling a crowd with an ice cream truck

One summer evening, my family held a party that attracted about 70 people spread both inside and outside our house. The main event, just after it got dark, was the premiere of our son’s movie on a screen that we had set up on our front lawn. Fearing that it would be hard to get that many people to move to one spot, we hired an old-fashioned ice cream truck to come down our driveway at precisely 9 p.m.

It worked perfectly. Everyone came for an ice cream, and we told them to grab a good seat for the premiere.

This is an example of the kind of positive lessons you can take away from studying what it takes to get groups of seven-year-olds to do what you want. Make it fun, simple and memorable.

Maturity doesn’t mean everything makes sense

Even mature, intelligent people often can’t understand the ways that large organizations work. This is because intelligent people working at cross purposes within a company produce corporate behavior that is wild, crazy and seemingly stupid.

This is what happens when your CEO says “we are obsessed with our customers,” but he never alters your compensation plan, which pays employees for selling, selling, selling—rather than serving.

It happens when management makes it clear that they are going to fire some people, but then urges people to work together cooperatively.

If you tell a seven-year-old that you are going to take away his dessert, he doesn’t hear anything until you give him back his dessert.

Using the Theory of Seven to produce intelligent behavior

Now imagine the opposite. Imagine that you produce a corporate strategy that is so perfectly conceptualized and communicated that even a seven-year-old could understand it.

Think about testing it against a Theory of Seven checklist…

Can we communicate the strategy in short and straightforward sentences? Check.

Are we using words, pictures and actions to make each key point memorable? Check.

Have we connected our strategy to food and money (the way employees get paid)? Check.

Are we consistent and predictable in our support of this strategy? Check.

The bottom line

I’m convinced that the main difference between seven-year-olds and grownups is that adults have learned to hide our emotions. But that doesn’t mean we no longer have fears or dreams. It doesn’t mean we no longer have short attention spans. It just means we have gotten very, very good at pretending to listen and understand.

Likewise, if you make adults listen to a convoluted strategy that you pay them to follow, adults will pretend to follow it. But the strategy still won’t work.

If you want your strategy to work, make it clear, simple, memorable and—even better—fun.