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Stupid Strategy

2010 June 27

Einstein said, “Any intelligent fool can make things bigger and more complex… It takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.”

In a similar vein, I often tell my analysts that I want them to be dumber.  The problem is that the people I hire tend to have achieved some measure of academic success, which they attained by impressing idle professors how sophisticated their thinking was.

Stupid people, on the other hand, look for what is obvious and useful and therefore can often accomplish more.  Over the years, I’ve come up with some ways to help smart people to become dumber.  Here’s a few of them:

Less Numbers – More Math

In developing a business strategy, you have to wade through a lot of data.  It’s an activity that is sometimes enlightening, but almost always painful.  After a while, your eyes hurt and your head throbs.

I never could make sense of people who  stuffed as much information into charts as possible.  Nevertheless, smart people often want to show how complicated it all is, so they not only cram in plenty of numbers, but also include lots of arrows that have the annoying habit of pointing in opposite directions.

A stupid person would never do this, because they would want to minimize the amount of information they would have to deal with.  There are a number of fairly simple mathematical concepts that allow you to be a whole lot dumber and understand much more.

Dumb people have the good sense to take short cuts; they’re not trying to prove how smart they are.

Lean Back

Things go up or down, left or right or they don’t go anywhere at all.

I’m amazed at how many smart people miss that simple and obvious fact and instead treat charts as if they were Rorschach tests.  They pride themselves in their ability to divine things in them that nobody else can see. ( We don’t have a name for this in marketing, but in finance these people are called Elliot Wave theorists.)

The truth is if what you’re looking for isn’t fairly clear it either isn’t really there or you just don’t understand what it is yet.

A really simple way to correct for this tendency (we all have it) is to simply lean back from your screen.  If you can’t see anything, reformat or move on and stop wasting your time.  Stupid people know this and just look for what’s obvious.

Aspect Seeing

When Ludwig Wittgenstein wasn’t reading cheap detective novels or watching cowboy movies, he mostly liked to chide other philosophers.  Much of the time, he complained about their need to find universal rules in everything.

He saw this as causing unnecessarily confusing and advocated what he called aspect seeing.  To get an idea of what he meant, take a look at the famous Klitschko brothers  below.

They are obviously very similar.  Both are big, strong guys with dark hair who are world champion boxers and share the same mother and father (even having met them both on several occasions, I still sometimes have trouble remembering which one is which).

The problem comes when you try to identify what is the “essence” of Klitschko or the “Klitschkoness” that is essential to their being.  If you just accept that one is Vitaly and one is Vladimir and leave it at that there is no confusion.  Wittgenstein called this “letting the fly out of the bottle.”

A stupid person would never make such a smart mistake.  That takes years of studying and a very senior title or advanced degree.

Have a Point

The basic job of strategy is to provide a plan of action (i.e. getting things done for a specific purpose).  Unless you are a professional researcher, your job isn’t to perform intellectual exercises, but to help further specific goals.

I’m sure Napoleon thought it would be interesting to go to Moscow (although having spent time there myself, I suspect he was disappointed).  Clearly he felt it would impress his friends and neighbors, but none of that mattered when his troops were starving because his supply lines were overextended.

Strategy only works if it can be clearly explained to the people who will actually do the work of carrying it out.  Therefore, it is always a good idea to have a point.  It makes all those smart thoughts so much more interesting and useful to those you are presenting it to.

Try it, you might like it!

Stupid Geniuses

Great things are not achieved not by making simple things complex, but by making complex things simple.

Of course there have been extremely intelligent people who have accomplished great things.  People like Euler, Gauss and von Neumann were prodigies who could speak half a dozen languages, had photographic memories and amazing computational abilities.  These men made serious contributions.

Yet compare them to Kant, Darwin and Einstein, none of whom displayed much early promise and all of whom revolutionized how we look at the world.  Richard Feynman, who even other great scientists considered a magician, had an IQ of only 125 – above average but by no means unusual.

G.H. Hardy, who discovered Ramanujan and was himself considered one of the great mathematicians of his day, wrote in his memoirs, “For any serious purpose, intelligence is a very minor gift.”

Let’s take him at his word and dumb it down a bit.

– Greg

56 Responses leave one →
  1. vent permalink
    June 28, 2010

    Hi Greg, the problem is that we try to dress up simplicity for the sake of a sale. We know it’s wrong so we complicate, trying to justify non-existent complexity.

    For good measure we’ll even add in the bogus agency ‘proprietary’ framework/model that uses so few or many shapes/buzz-words that it would take a client therapy to comprehend – so we drop in a few slides that explain that too.

    Why do we do this? Because we’re petrified of clients saying “Is that all? How do you justify your costs?” Agency ‘wisdom’ has it better to have it all in there (put at the end just in case we need).

    We know the client will have to show it around internally for buy-in and we’ll have to revise based on ‘collective feedback’ before it gets presented to the senior client with everyone who ever heard of the project in the room.

    Afterwards the client is, not suprisingly, confused so the agency conducts a ‘post-mortem’ to try and figure out what was missing and what else they could have added or done.

    That, Greg, is stupid.

    Yup, I’m having a bitter day. Tomorrow will be brighter. Thanks for giving me an anonymous forum to vent.

  2. June 28, 2010


    Your venting is very welcome here (especially when you make such intelligent points:-)

    Thanks and have a great week.

    – Greg

  3. June 28, 2010

    Finding the shortest distance between two points is creative, not stupid.

  4. June 28, 2010

    Hi Greg;
    Great points – I spend a bunch of time trying to put many of them into practice. One of the areas which this whole topic lends itself to, is digital dashboard design. When we were designing our own dashboard, provided to users of our Inbound Marketing Automation solution, we did a bunch of research into the topic of usability and dashboards. I came across a blog by Avinash Kaushik, of Google fame, who writes Occam’s Razor ( In it he gives five rules for good dashboard design and your post echoes most of them. Essentially, he says if you can’t make all of the information that you need to analyze fit on one page, then you aren’t focusing on the right areas (or, you don’t know enough about what you are doing – but that’s another story).
    Certainly all this helps produce succinct reports and very usable dashboards – so keep on trucking I’m all for KISS!

  5. June 28, 2010

    Thanks for saying so.

    – Greg

  6. June 28, 2010

    Hi Eric,

    Nice to see you again! Good point about dashboards. So few of them are done well.

    – Greg

  7. June 28, 2010

    Good idea, but it takes brains to know when it’s time to be stupid. Don’t forget:

    For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.
    H. L. Mencken

  8. Joyce permalink
    June 29, 2010

    Hi Greg,
    Good points. I see two ideas when we associate intelligence and stupidity. Through education, we were taught that being intelligent is a good thing and this follows us in our lives. Intelligent people made advancement of science and technology. It’s true that being intelligent make way to accomplishments and we value intelligence to the point of being a prestige. I agree with you that intelligent people are the ones who make complicated things more and more complicated; that’s the limit. They are people who impose their point of view and sometimes, they are stubborn.

    I don’t define stupidity with looking for simplicity. I see it as a great strategy since it involves creativity and being open-minded to opportunities. For example, when you target your customers who does not possess a PhD or Master, you have to adapt your message to their taste. This just means that you are a better communicator. The so-called stupid people are good at dealing with disaster and survive in a imperfect world. Learning from experience is much more valuable than being stuffed with theory and applying it without understanding it.

  9. June 29, 2010

    I’ve always liked that quote. Thanks Robert.

  10. June 29, 2010

    Great points, Joyce!


    – Greg

  11. Robert Neuschul permalink
    June 29, 2010


    Good points, as usual.
    In this type of context I like the work of Edward Tufte – the simplification of visual complexity to the point of obvious and achieved communication.
    His “Powerpoint Essay” should be required reading for anyone who uses or abuses visuals.

    As a great Brit once said in the context of designing racing and sports cars: “Add lightness and simplicity, but only sufficiently so!” But that in turn takes one to the next obvious issue: there’s an old aphorism [variously credited] which goes “I’m sorry this is so long, I didn’t have the time to make it shorter!”

    Too many people spend too much time acting or writing first, often in overly complex ways, and not enough time thinking first about how to simplify and clarify: a half day spent thinking [rather than doing] can reap far more rewards than a week spent on inappropriate activity.


  12. June 29, 2010


    Well said. I especially like the point about time management. You can often accomplish more by doing less by ensuring what you do is meaningful.

    – Greg

  13. Vitaly permalink
    June 29, 2010

    God, you are right.

    There is even a course launched in Kyiv “The harm of higher education” and I think it’s most usefeul class a lot of people aggravated by academic degrees can attend.

    Isn’t that dumb to baffle a consumer by your intricate brilliantness and miss the point at the same time? You think these guys need to be even dumber? 🙂

    Keep up good work.

  14. June 29, 2010


    Thanks. Also, I really enjoyed your editorial on Ukraine using Georgia as a model.

    Whoever wants to read it they can find it here:

    – Greg

  15. Bernard permalink
    June 29, 2010

    I’ve always told my clients that they should think of me as their dumbest customer. And the last question I always ask is, “Is there anything I should be asking you that I haven’t asked?”

    BTW if you have to put a “skip” button on an ad/landing page, you’re telling me that you just want to keep me from getting to what I really want to find. Is that a positive user experience?

    P.S. Greg, I read a lot of stuff online, but I find DigitalTonto to be one of the few places I actually write comments. Nice work! Nice user experience!

  16. Vitaly permalink
    June 29, 2010

    Thank you.

    The opinon piece came after a factual story. Saakashvili likled it and requested the cover of the magazine to be used on outdoor bigboards in Batumi. I’m afraid I’m becoming a walking ad for Georgia which I don’t want to be.

    The factual story is here, if you wish. Unfortunately it’s in Russian. For those who have even a slight example in economy or any type of reforms, Georgia is a fascinating story:

  17. June 29, 2010


    That’s extremely nice of you to say (and even nicer to hear!).

    btw. I agree with you on the ad intros, but the simple fact is that response is much better than for regular banners and they are extremely profitable. I think that, sadly, they are often a necessary evil. At least you have the option to skip (although that is a small consolation).

    – Greg

  18. June 29, 2010

    Thanks Vitaly.

    Btw, for those who don’t read Russian, Google’s translator works very well for Russian.

    – Greg

  19. Olga permalink
    June 30, 2010

    That will be my favourite post
    I just sent to all 🙂

  20. June 30, 2010

    Thx Olga.

    Keep in touch:-)

    – Greg

  21. July 4, 2010


    Thanks for the very enjoyable article.

    Your article reminds me of my corporate days BC (before children) sitting in really long meetings brainstorming and ending up nowhere at the end of the meeting. I used to laugh when some of the senior executives would say what a great meeting we just had. Great meeting? We accomplished absolutely nothing, came to no conclusions and had no course of action. Even in my youth I recognized the need to have direction, focus and goals.

    “Strategy only works if it can be clearly explained to the people who will actually do the work of carrying it out. Therefore, it is always a good idea to have a point.”

    I can so relate to the above. There are so many times I listen to clients and others talk about all these abstract ideas yet they have no idea what their point is, where they are going, why they are going there or how they are going to get there. I am pretty good at getting them back on track to find that “point”. But I have to admit that sometimes I am amazed at how clueless some people are – that includes both the super intelligent and the stupid.

    Here is another one of Einstein’s quotes that I really like: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. I am sure we have all been guilty of this at some point in our lives.

    Thanks for sharing your “intelligent” and “stupid” insights.

  22. July 4, 2010

    Just thought of a really appropriate acronym: KISS = keep it simple stupid 🙂

  23. July 4, 2010

    Nice to see you again Julie.

    I think your last point is right on the mark. We all do it sometimes (I think less as we get older). The urge to impress is much stronger we like to admit (maybe that’s why getting old and fat helps:-)

    I also think you make a good point about kids (my wife and I recently had our first). If you can’t explain your business strategy to your kids (mine is still a little young) you probably don’t understand it well enough yet.

    – Greg

  24. July 4, 2010

    Thx. KISS back:-)

    – Greg

  25. July 4, 2010

    …thanks Greg – now at least I have a rationale! ;o)

    I like Churchill’s perspective – “Continuous effort – not strength or intelligence – is the key to unlocking our potential”.



  26. July 5, 2010

    Thanks, Jeremy.

    How are things going with ?

    – Greg

  27. July 9, 2010

    Hi Greg,

    Great post. I guess it does not apply to those who are already dumb enough. Dumbing down too much may also be risky 🙂

    But seriously, from my perspective it is wrong to try to find simple rules for everything or rules at all. Logical thinking is not the only capability of the brain. There is also intuition or call it gut feeling that often stems from experience.


  28. July 9, 2010

    Thanks Stan (that’s part of the concept of my upcoming Sunday post on top down vs. bottom up strategy).

    – Greg

  29. July 11, 2010


    Congrats on your first born. Hang on – it is a rough ride LOL. Boy or girl?

    Hey – when we get older (and I am a lot older than you) we don’t have the energy to care about impressing others 🙂

  30. July 11, 2010

    It’s a girl (and I’m older than I look. You only have about ten years on me. )

    – Greg

  31. July 12, 2010

    Uh oh – your ride is going to be a fun one – I have two daughters, 17 & 22 and the ride is far from over LOL. I would be happy to give you those ten years.

    FYI – a link to this post:

  32. July 12, 2010


    Thanks for the link. Much appreciated!

    – Greg

  33. Stuart Nicolson permalink
    July 27, 2010

    Hi Greg,

    Not sure if i agree with the fact that dumb people are any worse or better than clever people at developing strategy or insights.I just think many people from both camps make the sort of errors that you describe in terms of providing too much data and not enough insight.

    In our business we spend 80% of our man-hours providing work which is laughingly descibed as “competititive analysis”.What this amounts to is a thick book full of literally hundreds of bar and pie charts of adpend and GRPs looked at from every possible angle.
    People spend so much time collecting the data and drawing the graphs in excel that they dont have time to think about whether it has any point to make.Because they have invested so many man-hours producing the book they tend to send it all as they dont want to waste any of their work.In reality there might be six charts that have a real point, but often the originator doesnt know which ones are most significant anyway.Result – client uses the book to prop a door up.

    One very big international packaged goods advertiser insists that a strategy has to fit on one side of A4 paper.This imposes a discipline on the strategist to really address what matters and hence makes the work more effective.The practice of then putting the font size down to the minuimum that Microsoft allows to get more on the page has however resulted in considerable cases of poor eyesight!

  34. July 27, 2010

    Are you suggesting a blind strategy?


  35. Anurag Dabral permalink
    July 28, 2010

    Hi Greg,

    Good post. Intuitive though still as rare as common sense.

    Remembered a couple of lines from my previous avataars that i thought could be relevant to point –
    1. If you want to be a consultant, become a 6 year old – Just keep asking “why”
    2. There is no such thing as difficult questions – There are only 2 types – the one where you know the answers; and the ones where you dont.

    Dumbing up is it!

  36. July 28, 2010

    Great article with some good points.

    It would seem that there is a general tendency to paraphrase what you are saying to a call for keeping things simple – KISS. This is perhaps hardly surprsing as there is of course a longstanding precedence for confusing simplicity and dumbness: just think how unintelligent people are always called simple.

    However, there is an inherent paradox in what you are looking for. My excellent maths teacher always used to tell us “Be intelligently lazy!” Great advice, but it does still require intelligence. 🙂

  37. July 28, 2010


    Good advice. Thanks:-)

    – Greg

  38. July 28, 2010


    “Be intelligently lazy” – I like it! Life is so much simpler if you look for shortcuts first:-)

    – Greg

  39. james permalink
    August 2, 2010

    Very funny and insightful. I would just add that it also takes a good deal of courage to dumb it down because you give yourself less places to hide with a concept that anyone can grasp – it really separates the wise from the simply clever. Nice one Greg, Uncle Jimi.

  40. August 2, 2010

    Thanks, Jimi.

    Let me know how everything goes with your plans.

    – Greg

  41. August 2, 2010


    Nicely done piece. Although I’d argue even smart folks want to be short and to the point. The problem is it can be so damn hard! I’m not a great writer by any means. It doesn’t come natural. To say something concisely usually take me a lot longer to figure out.

    Who knows, maybe trying to be “dumb” will help me get there faster. A lot of time is wasted trying to be “smart”.

    – Tewks

  42. August 3, 2010

    Thanks, Tewks.

    – Greg

  43. August 29, 2010

    The latins alwyas said: Sancta Simplicita, I let it at you to translate it,

    But in the modern world we invented the “Office for the Complication of the Simple Affairs”

    The client needs the damn product/service

    The damn product/service is soo simple even the client could of have it done himself or paid an undergraduate two Big Mack’s to do it, but they had no idea.

    We don’t want them to understand this and do it on their own, we want their money.


    And the more complexily (silly) we present the issue, the prowder is the client when boasting around they bought this GREAT product form such a prepeared team. Who knows how things run just laughs behind their backs.

    They are asking to be fooled so the “O.C.S.A.” (see above) starts producing… words!

    Let me know if I am wrong.

    (BTW I made this as short as I could!)

    From Einstein: Make everything as simple as possible, but not simplier!

  44. August 29, 2010

    Good points, Emil. Thanks.

    – Greg

  45. September 19, 2010

    “…Stupid people, on the other hand, look for what is obvious and useful and therefore can often accomplish more.”

    Reminds me of a passage in the book Cheaper by the Dozen…The real, original story about the family of John Galbraith, one of the first time-study experts. When he was a very young man (18, as I recall) he told the owner at a bricklaying concern that if he could be allowed to watch the “Laziest man you have…some guy who’s so lazy he wouldn’t scratch his own ass if it itched.” he could devise a more efficient method of bricklaying for all the employees to follow.

    The premise was that the lazy man would never make any move twice if he didn’t have to.

    Galbraith was hired and did devise an optimal method for bricklaying and went onto a long career developing the science of Time-Study.

    Stupid people are sometime smarter than one thinks.

  46. September 19, 2010

    Nice story, Gayle.


    – Greg

  47. September 19, 2010

    You are most welcome. Thanks for your blog post.

  48. October 2, 2010

    Hello Greg,

    Long-time reader, first-time poster! I was so amused and encouraged by your posting, that I could not help but reply. I have championed such simplicity in certain environments only to be mocked. I’ve concluded that it takes a lot of security within one’s self to be plain-spoken and follow the KISS rule; particularly in a work environment full of well-intentioned over-achievers constantly seeking the same, fleeting validation as an ‘A’ on a math test. All I can say is that insecurity is the root of all inefficiency! Therefore, I posit that we wouldn’t necessarily have to be more stupid to be better problem solvers, just more secure to accept the simple, efficient answer.


    Recovering Smarty-Pants

  49. October 2, 2010

    Good point, Sharon!

    Thanks for finally commenting, please don’t be shy about posting in the future.

    – Greg

  50. Tyrone permalink
    December 29, 2010

    Hi Greg,

    I feel no shame in admitting that this is the only post of yours that I fully understood!

    Does that make me dumb or smart?

    Anyway great ideas and in the world of advertising there is a saying that the best solutions are always simple but they being simple is what means they’re ignored.

    If you are into multi-culture you’d know about India’s gruelling educational system and its high pressure on students. A recent movie challenged the premise of the system : rote learning- good grades, success in life.

    Being an MBA myself I’ve personally experienced the rat raace at post chaste speed. Friends worried about grades which are linked to future jobs and ultimately future success.

    Great post and thanks for writing summin I can digest with my lack of intellect:

    The point about we being stifled by society etc was well explained by St Exupery in The Little Prince

    Here’s a clip from that Indian movie 3 idiots:

    It’s long but quite a good watch and funny too! (it’s w subtitles)

    The part I’m talking about is after 8min but you shud watch the whole thing once!

    Happy New Year!


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