Boiling it Down: or The Leadership Art of Talking Simply

Conceptual reductionist intercourse facilitates adherent adhesion in on-going dynamism.

Or in other words: In times of change, a leader makes it easier for followers to follow by speaking simply – “boiling it down”.

Many who write about change sayCommunication is critical.” Leading change in organizations is complex. We may be changing strategic direction, technology, systems, processes, and structure, but the soft stuff –climate, culture, emotion, behavior – the people stuff – makes it tougher still.

In a change effort I helped with years ago, I made the (I thought) bold statement, “You should be prepared to communicate twice as much as you usually do.”

About two weeks later a leader grabbed me in the hall.

“Alan, Alan, do you remember when you told us that we should communicate twice as much as normal?”

Yes.” I said tentatively, dreading an argument about the time involved.

Well, it’s more like a factor of 10, not 2,” he said, “because in times of change, if people don’t know the answer, they simply make stuff up – and what they make up is always worse than the truth.”

People in the midst of change are easily overwhelmed. To help them a leader needs to have the skill of boiling the words down to the simplest possible level. For example:

An energy technology company had a series of high-profile accidents, some involving fatalities and environmental damage. The company’s future was in doubt and they embarked on a complex change effort changing systems and technology and communicating a need for vigilance and changed behavior. The change program was slow going until a middle manager boiled it down. “What we must do”, he said, “is to reduce risk and increase value, by operating more systematically.” That became shortened further to:   “Risk Down; Value Up – Systematically.”

Those five words captured the imagination of the organization, and boiled the change down to a watch phrase, which all action could be measured against. The change isn’t over-it may never be over but it is moving more quickly now.

Simplicity is not a new concept.  Occam’s razor, the idea that among competing hypotheses the one with the fewest assumptions (the simplest) is probably correct, has its roots in the 13th century. Leonardo Da Vinci was known to say “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” Mies Van Der Rohe, the 1930s Bauhaus designer stated it elegantly, “Less is more.”

In the 1970s, there was a phrase that resonated in the popular media, “K.I.S.S.” or “Keep It Simple Stupid.” Apparently, this phrase had its origins with a Lockheed aeronautical engineer, Kelly Johnson, who used it to express the concept that military aircraft should be designed with maintenance in mind. Keep it simple because breakdowns happen “stupidly” when only the most basic tools would be available in the field. In 1992 that phase morphed into Bill Clinton’s successful 1992 presidential campaign slogan, “It’s the economy, stupid!”

There is a skill to boiling things down. It involves seeing complexity in terms of 2-3 categories. Those categories can be about time horizons:

  • “Keep the doors open today and Build the future”
  • “Management is about the steady-state; Leadership is about change. Each of us needs both skills.”

The categories can be about different parts of the enterprise:

  • “We need to help our suppliers improve, build better quality products, that delight our customers.”
  • “Customer Intimacy, Product Leadership, Operational Excellence,” (Michael Treacey and Fred Wiersema categories in The Discipline of Market Leaders.)

Sometimes the categories explain two or more sides of a complex issue:

  • “Change is about:
    • Insight – understanding the need for change, the vision
    • Action – doing things differently
    • Results – achieving what we intend and
    • Learning how to do this again”
  • “Innovate – Integrate – Improve – Iterate.”
  • “We improve Competence and increase Confidence to use the skills”
  • “What things should we Stop doing? What things should we do Differently? And what things should we Start doing?”
  • “Either/or is often a false choice. How can we think in terms of Both/And?”

Of course, one can get carried away with simplification:

There are two kinds of people in the world: Those who divide the world into two kinds of people and those who don’t.

Incessantly boiling things down is to speak in slogans. Slogans only work as an exhortation to those who are already on board. Striving for simplicity in leaders’ communications is only a good thing if it helps us be understood, to connect, and move towards joint action on goals that we share. It is a shortcut, a reminder of an engaging conversation that has already happened.


Alan Culler
Alan Culler
Alan Cay Culler is a writer of stories and songs, his fourth career (aspiring actor, speakers agent, change consultant, storyteller.) He retired after thirty-seven years as a leadership and change consultant. Alan was an executive coach, a leadership team facilitator, trainer, and project manager for innovation and improvement initiatives. Alan’s point of view: "Business is all about people, customers, staff, suppliers, and the community - pay disciplined attention to these people and rewards follow; ignore them and success will not last." Alan is “a seeker of wisdom from unusual places.” He is currently completing three books: Wisdom from Unusual Places, Is Consulting Wisdom an Oxymoron?, and Change Leader? Who me?. Alan earned a BA in Theatre from Centre College, an MBA from the London Business School, and a post-graduate certificate in Organization Development from Columbia University. Alan also builds cigar box guitars and wood sculptures, hikes, travels with his wife Billie, and gets as much grandchildren playtime as he can.

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  1. So true brother Alan, a leadershould meet complicity with simple communications. It is easy to make the complex more complex. Poor, infrequent and commanding communication will only make the bad worse.

    Your four I’s ““Innovate – Integrate – Improve – Iterate.”make whole of common sense. Peole hate to be forced to change. If we make the change with understanding and accepting the associated changes then people might turn their rejection of change to accepting it.This is the power of simple communication