How To Escape The Lowest Common Denominator Problem In Business


Friday, 9.44pm

Sheffield, U.K.

The thing that makes the thing is more interesting than the thing. – Casey Reas

I’ve been reminded today just why I dislike Microsoft tools quite so much.

I was trying to make something quite dry more interesting.

Let’s see what you think.

Say you want to buy something – oil, gold, bitcoin, shares – you’ll probably want to know what the prospects are for that thing.

So, you’ll look at its price history – that’s the blue line.

That tells you that prices sometimes go up and sometimes they go down – and most people stop there.

But you could, if you were so inclined, work out what prices could do after a particular day if they carried on acting the way they had so far.

What’s the high case and what’s the low case – within a certain level of confidence, of course, say 95%.

Still with me?

Now when the price actually starts moving past the day on which you did your analysis you could spot the point at which prices went below what was a normal range – suggesting that perhaps you should jump into the market and buy some of that thing.

Or not if it went the other way.

Anyway, like I said, not the most interesting thing in the world – forecasting financial time series.

So – perhaps animating this would make it more interesting.

After a couple of hours on Powerpoint – I was starting to regret the whole idea.

The problem is that most of the world runs on Microsoft tools – and while they help lots of people get things done they’re just not interesting.

What they give you is a pencil – but not a good one.

The kind of pencil you get in kids’ birthday bags, all colourful and smiley but with a harsh and gritty line.

But they’re cheap and so everyone gets one and gets on with using it.

And that’s what happens – millions of people using Excel and Powerpoint in business – and that’s just the way it is.

And if you want to fit in you need to do that as well.

It’s the lowest common denominator problem – the thing that unites everyone but it’s also not where excellence or greatness or anything interesting happens to be.

For that you need to look elsewhere.

Which led me to the work of Ben Fry and Casey Reas who have created a language for drawing things.

Things much cooler than a line chart.

Like simulating flocking, something quite interesting when you think about how complex behaviour emerges from simple rules.

There’s no real point in asking why we don’t use tools like this in the workplace.

It’s because there is a learning curve – and even small learning curves can stop things being used.

And that’s why so much effort goes into making things simple to use.

The fact is that Excel and Powerpoint and Apple rule because they make things simple to do.

And sometimes you can even do complex things.

But we’re also starting to see the emergence of a new art form – one that’s moving away from the tyranny of the simple to something more interesting.

Take McKinsey’s Global Energy Perspective 2019, for example.

I look to McKinsey as the reference on using Powerpoint in business.

Their ideas on structure and communication through decks has permeated the consulting industry.

But they’re now moving to interactive charts and javascript and css.

And that’s engaging and interesting and dynamic.

The challenge for us in the world of work is trying to take the labour out of what we do, giving that to computers and spending our time being creative.

And we’re very fortunate to live in a world that has people working to share knowledge openly and make things more inclusive.

And taking that opportunity to learn and develop our skills is the only way we’ll escape that lowest common denominator trap.


Karthik Suresh

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