Simple isn’t simple

Bill Jensen

Bill Jensen

by Kym Reinstadler, SCN feature writer  October, 2012

Essence only. That’s Bill Jensen’s mantra.

His New Jersey-based consulting firm, The Jensen Group, works with businesses and organizations as far-flung geographically as they are in purpose —, IBM, Hyatt Hotels, Chrysler, NASA, New York Public Library,  the Hong Kong Post Office.

His mission is aways the same: Make it easy to get the real work done.

His career as a communication and organizational designer was influenced by courses in “Bauhaus” theory he took at the Rochester (NY) Institute of Technology. (Those of you who’ve read Walter Isaacson’s biography of Apple President Steve Jobs will remember how Jobs was also influenced by Bauhaus’s simplify, simplify, simplify philosophy of design.)

Bauhaus School

A Bauhaus school in Dessau, Germany

In schools, the real work is learning. To achieve that, Bill says everybody from the superintendent to the kindergartener boarding the bus for the first time must endeavor to be a better student.

“At any level, if you’re getting resistance, it’s probably because you’re not looking at a task from the point of view of the person who has to do it,” Bill told me. “If you want people to create and innovate, you first have to address their time poverty.”

He urges managers poll their people on the top three PITA (Pain In The Ass) procedures they do every day, and simplify those things.

Heck, he figures the “auto-fill” function on computers alone can save secretaries at least five hours a year. The goal is to channel the saved hours into more interesting work that advances the mission of the organization.

Automate to innovate

Bill’s observation resonated with me. I’d just visited a public library that was in the throes of a conversion to a self-service RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) check-in/check-out system.  I recognized several clerks liberated from behind the circulation desk on the floor helping patrons. It’s a bonus for the public having more staff available for reference questions. And I’ve got to believe it makes for a more interesting workday for staff.

“People only resist stupid changes,” said Bill, whose mother taught kindergarten on Long Island for 40 years. “Managers exist to reinvent the communication patterns, tools and infrastructure to meet the needs of the people doing the work.”

(I’m sure we’ve all labored under supervisors who had that backwards. In their minds, staff existed to make their lives more productive!)

It won’t be long before large K-12 districts follow higher education’s shift toward “smart cards” – one student identification card that is used to record attendance, access online class materials, record food service transactions and transportation records. If automating repetitive tasks frees school employees to help our kids learn, bring it on!

Bill says school systems that throw in the towel on trying to “outlaw” technology release themselves from a futile fight.

“Any principal who thinks Facebook and Twitter aren’t being accessed during school hours because the tech department has put up a barrier must be smoking something,” Bill said. “They’re not dealing with reality.”

 Bill’s book “Hacking Work, Breaking Stupid Rules For Smart Results,” written with computer specialist Josh Klein, says today’s “creative class” of professionals will tunnel ways around impractical rules to achieve their objectives.

The barrier to learning that educators should be tackling full force, Bill said, is teaching students how to use social media without wasting time.

“School districts banning Facebook is like horse and buggy manufacturers banning the automobile, or the music industry suing 13-year-olds for downloading music they haven’t paid for,” Bill said. “Ultimately, there’s no way you’re going win. You’ve got to change your model.”

Describe a top-shelf communicator

True to Bill’s simplify platform, he replied with two words: Bill Clinton.

“Whether or not you agree with his politics, President Clinton is the prime example of how to craft and deliver a message,” Bill said. “He’s able to relay facts in a concise way that speaks to a deeper truth.”

Clinton’s speech at the 2012 Democratic National Convention could serve as the textbook for anybody who aspires to be a better communicator, Bill said.

Here are the essential components:

  • Everybody these days has Attention Deficit Disorder, so your basic message has to be distilled into a single page of type. (Think 12-point type, not 6-point!)
  • Quickly (within the first 90 seconds) tell people what you want them to know, feel and do.
  • Plan on having to reclaim your audience’s attention every three to five minutes, so package your message in chunks, or “sound bites.”
  • Synthesize information to make it crystal clear.
  • Making it fun makes it memorable.
  • Recruit people who are enthusiastic about your topic to spread the word.

A school communicator’s value to the superintendent is his or her ability to know what’s happening outside the orbit of administrative offices.

“Communicators don’t have to be good at top down but they must be great at bottom up,” Bill said. “And this requires them to ensure that an on-going feedback loop is in place. ”

What would you do if …

I passed Bill a routine school communications challenge to see how he’d run with it.

A school system needs voter approval to sell bonds to expand and renovate school facilities. The superintendent doubts the proposal can achieve community-wide support without the involvement of teachers, who provide the public’s primary touchpoint with the district.

But teachers are already overworked and may balk at being asked to handle something they probably consider the superintendent’s responsibility.

Too easy, Bill said.

First thing to remember is that video is more fun than print.

Ask teachers to participate in a lip dub, rap or other short musical production about the capital campaign that can be videotaped in three hours on a Saturday morning. Getting together for that will feel more like play than work for enough teachers to generate a good turnout. (Provide a continental breakfast. Goodwill trumps the meager expense.)

Next, flesh out that video footage with just enough details to sell the campaign. Keep it tight — five minutes or less.

Make the music video available on inexpensive flash drives that teachers can hand out.

“That’s all it takes,” Bill said, “to make it simple, painless and fun for the people doing the work.”

Check out Bill and Josh’s TEDx talk on “Hacking Work.”

Want to read more articles geared to school communicators? Click HERE.