For quality procedures to be effective, they must be simple and practical enough to be used every day by the people doing the work. – Jeffrey Liker
I’ve been reading a few papers on how there is a plethora of methods in Soft Operational Research but they don’t get used very often by people other than the originators. This is a problem that’s not limited just to the OR field. Every time someone invents a new approach – a machine, a software program, a procedure – its success is measured by how many people go on to use it. So what makes the difference between success and failure?
One theory is set out in the quote that starts this post. If you want people to use a method or do something in a particular way make it simple to do – design it so they can use it every day. The canonical example of this in knowledge work is the notebook and a pen. If you have a notebook you can get to work – that’s what you need to get started.
This does lead to a paradox. There are often better ways of doing something but you end up doing things less effectively because of the skills that people have. This is acutely obvious with software. Most people don’t know how to use software well – they are given their computers, only allowed to use certain products and don’t have the skills needed to get the most out of their machines. Computers can help you be more productive but for many people they prevent you from getting work done.
What this suggests is that success is not merely a matter of numbers. Just because everyone uses it doesn’t mean it’s good. You need to get clear on what you want. The author Robert Kiyosaki told a story of how he was once questioned by a reporter who was annoyed at how successful his books were despite their lack of literary quality. Kiyosaki pointed out that his book covers said “best-selling author”, not “best-writing author”.
The other thing we have to remember is that successful things teach us very little about success. We don’t know how much luck was involved in the process. Timing is often everything when it comes to a product. Unless it isn’t. You might argue that YouTube was lucky and created a video sharing service at a time when the Internet was ready for one rather than a few years previously when it might have been victim to the dot com boom. But you could equally well argue that Steve Jobs’ perfectionism led to the creation of a handheld computing device that he had been working towards for decades – a device that changed everything and brought us the smartphone centered world of today.
Things that catch on are things that people want to use. Many of us like using paper and pen. Many of us like the way Apple’s computers work. Some of us are fans of GNU/Linux. Many of us will try recommendations – from diet plans to daily routines. We’re an open, experimental species. But we don’t like being told what to do, or having to follow complicated rituals that don’t seem to make sense.
Let’s bring this back to tools – and specifically thinking tools. Why do tools like Mind Maps, invented by Tony Buzan, take off while other tools like Concept Maps are relatively unheard of in most organisations? Why are tools like SWOT so popular while others that are perhaps more useful are never used? Why did the Business Model Canvas get worldwide attention while hundreds of other models languish in the literature?
As I think about this I realize don’t know the answer. Maybe it’s good marketing. It’s certainly all about good timing. Maybe its about charisma. It’s quite possible that there is no formula you can follow other than to follow Einstein’s dictum: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”