The Bookcase Problem: Why good messages get muddled

This is why we can’t have nice things. Well, sort of.

I call it The Bookcase Problem. It’s when people take something excellent, then pile mediocre stuff on top of it and ruin it.

I dubbed it The Bookcase Problem, after an experience with my Dad. He was cleaning out his house after my mom died. Carloads of stuff went to Goodwill. Then the remodeling began. The result was a beautiful, clean, uncluttered space with two large bookcases right near the front door.

I came in to help my dad arrange furniture and fill the bookcases. My Dad had boxes of boating books, nautical décor, and Navy memorabilia.

It took lots of editing; I convinced him to let go of some items, and store others. The end result was two beautiful bookcases showcasing his love for boating, reading, and his pride in the Navy. One look at those bookcases and you knew exactly who my Dad was and what he stood for.

There was plenty of “white space” around the important pieces to draw attention to them. My father loved it. The next week he had friends over, they loved it. It was the same stuff he’d always had, but instead of it being cluttered with a million other things, it was edited to showcase what mattered most.

When I returned the following month, my Dad said, “I’m really excited for you to see the house. I loved what you did so much, I did more!”

I arrived to see the beautifully edited bookcases that now had 50% more stuff in them. He’d gone out and bought more stuff. Now instead of a single antique anchor, we had three. The stunning pair of large underwater photos with white space on either side had been joined by seven or eight smaller photos.

Everything was consistent with the original theme, only now, you didn’t see any of it. More of a good thing didn’t make it better: it made it less distinct.

The same thing happens in organizations. We create a crisp positioning statement. Then everyone adds in their favorite adjectives and adverbs, and what was once clear is now cluttered. Behind every two-paragraph mission statement is a team of well-intentioned people who fell in love with their own words and couldn’t bear to edit any of them.

It’s why marketing messaging that starts out crisp gets clunky.

It’s why once elegant products end up with extra drop downs, clunky buttons and ugly stickers all over the packaging.

No one wants to edit; everyone wants to add. When I work with teams, I tell leaders every meaningful idea is one committee meeting away from being mundane.

The problem isn’t that people don’t like the crisp version, on the contrary the love it. They love it so much they want to be part of it. But there’s a better way. It’s stories. When I asked my Dad to tell me the story of each object, he became animated and engaged. He pulled out the new stuff he bought, and was able to appreciate the essence, because now he’s part of it.

The same thing works with teams. They don’t need to add to the elegant messaging, they need to find the story that helps them own it. If you want to keep things compelling and clear, don’t add to it. Edit it. Then ask people to tell you why the simple elegant version matters to them.