The problem involves a compulsion among lawyers to use complex language and terminology to articulate every possible scenario. Lawyers invoke the specter of class action lawsuits, and everything else becomes secondary. They insist that using “legalese” is the only safe way to communicate, and in so doing, they break down communication.
Even something as seemingly straightforward as real estate can be made confusing. What exactly is a “realtor”? How is that different from the terms “agent” and “broker”? How about “certified buyer representative”? Apparently there are at least eight types of real estate professionals: CBR, C-CREC, CEBA, CRP, CBA, CRS, ABR, and GRI. The use of jargon is a prime example of lack of empathy—when you fail to consider the frame of reference in which your message will be received.
As a result, important messages can become “lost in translation,” making it impossible to reach across lines, connect, and collaborate. In the midst of the September 11 tragedy, police lingo became a hindrance; emergency responders couldn’t communicate because each had their own set of codes.
With all of the forces and conditions fostering complexity, it might seem that the situation is irreversible—that once things become overly complicated, they can never go back to being simple. We have evidence to the contrary. Many companies we’ve studied were once plagued by complexity but are now much simpler. Complexity can be moved upstream, out of sight of the end user. Turning the key in a car’s ignition is a simple task that masks a complicated set of underlying processes, and that is how all interactions should be for consumers.
Even the most complex situations can be made simple when there’s a genuine desire and commitment to do it. Here’s proof positive: The financial industry is awash in complexity and would have us believe that there is no way to conduct complex transactions and deals without voluminous fine print, jargon, and paperwork. And yet at the height of the financial crisis, when survival was at stake and there was no time for wasted words, government officials produced a TARP application that was a model of simplicity: two pages long with four clear concise bullet points! This document was then used by the Treasury to lend nearly $50 billion to the biggest banks.
The point here is that when there’s a will to simplify, there is always a way. But the will must be there, and that means people must be convinced it is in their self-interest to simplify. It is only because consumers do not understand the meaning of many provisions that the clauses continue to be included on a routine basis. If they clearly understood the imbalance of power, the injustice of the provisions, and the impracticality of the clauses, they wouldn’t meekly sign. They would challenge companies by striking out offensive clauses, blogging on the Web to increase awareness, and taking their business elsewhere.
We believe that the time has come in the “me too” world of business when companies will realize that the pursuit of simplicity is a process that will not only streamline their production but also sharpen their focus, empower their employees, reinforce their customer relationships, and increase their profits. Consumer confidence can only be born from comprehension, and simplicity offers a greater chance of comprehension. As consumers grow more confident they will spend more, and both our economy and our society will benefit.