Rule of thumb

A long time ago, when I worked in advertising, I had a Creative Director with an annoying habit.

He’d wait until you were right up to deadline on a job, then he’d start picking over the ad you and your Art Director had lovingly crafted. Every now and then, he’d cover up a word or phrase with his thumb and raise a quizzical eyebrow.

(The point being, of course, that the ad still worked just fine without that word or phrase – so why was it in there?)

After a few passive-aggressive conversations with my Art Director partner (who had to stay late re-working the layouts), I became wise in the way of the thumb. I also came to understand that it wasn’t about aesthetics or nit-picking: it was just common sense. The more things you give someone to think about, the harder it is for them to make a decision.

It’s a lesson worth bearing in mind when you consider the sheer volume of information that assaults an average office worker every day: phone calls, emails, meetings, presentations, Facebook updates. How much of that information would pass the thumb test – and how much of it is just getting in the way?

Most businesses are not very good at requiring their employees to be concise. Which is a shame, because it’s a hugely important discipline – and it doesn’t come naturally, so you have to make people work at it.

This is because, when you know a lot about a subject, it can be hard to edit that knowledge. ‘It’s all important,’ you think. ‘I can’t leave any of it out.’

There’s a tendency to get so bogged down in what we know that we assume everyone else needs to have the same level of detail we have in order to make good decisions.

In fact, the opposite is true.

The more you give people to think about, the harder it is for them to know what to do. Your job is to make it easier. You do that by taking away the distractions and giving them clear priorities.

In other words, get your thumb out.

Leave a Reply