As Helen clicked to the next slide, Steve returned from his daydream, suppressing a yawn. He was still sitting in the strategy review. The strategy was well documented, carefully researched, and so complex that it was unfathomable. He thought maybe that was why he had checked out, though he couldn't be sure. It didn't matter — in three months, they'd be reviewing Unfathomable Strategy 1.0.1.
Across the courtyard, something similar was happening in a project review. A different team (engineers instead of executives), and a different document (a project plan instead of a strategic plan), but the same astonishing complexity, and the same life expectancy — in three months, they would be reviewing Unexecutable Project Plan 1.0.1.
Our plans, products and processes are often so complex that even their authors cannot understand them. Gratuitous complexity, so deeply embedded in our organizations, is also visible in our personal schedules, filled with tasks and frenzy. Even the email we send each other is too voluminous to sort, too long to read and too complicated to understand.
Our plans, products and
processes are often so complex
that even their authors
cannot understand themEffective plans, usable products, and reliable processes are simple and elegant. Somehow, we've turned that idea on its head — we confuse complexity with quality and detail with completeness.
We can learn about simplicity and elegance from the work of three great artists:
- Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address has 268 words. One paragraph of one section of a procedure manual can be longer than the Gettysburg Address.
- Mark Rothko's paintings, especially his later work, are studies in form and color — paradigms of beauty and simplicity. View some of his work at the Rothko exhibit at the National Gallery of Art, and compare it with your company's Web site.
- Henny Youngman is perhaps most famous for his fiddle and for this one-liner: "Take my wife…please." Just four words. How long is your company's mission statement or your project's vision statement?
If great artists can accomplish so much with so little, why do we make things so complicated? Here are a few possibilities:
- Complexity addiction
- Some of our finest minds work in Product Development and in Strategic Planning. They like difficult problems, and when a problem isn't difficult enough, they sometimes make it a little more difficult than they need to.
- Solving the wrong problem
- Facing unhappy customers, we sometimes use new features or products to recover market share. But often, a better approach to solving customer service problems is to fix customer service. Solve the real problem.
- Leadership failure
- Architects of organizational initiatives often include elements simply to placate powerful constituencies who would object if they weren't included. We sometimes use complexity to mask a failure of leadership.
Simplicity, elegance, and effectiveness begin with you. Make a collage of something from Abraham, something from Mark, and something from Henny. Put it on your desk to remind you of the connection between simplicity, elegance, and effectiveness. Top Next Issue
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More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:
- Own Your Space
- Since we spend so much of our waking lives in our offices, it's surprising how few of us take control
of our immediate surroundings. If you do — if you make your space uniquely yours — you'll
feel better about the time you spend at work.
- Making Meaning
- When we see or hear the goings-on around us, we interpret them to make meaning and significance. Some
interpretations are thoughtful, but most are almost instantaneous. Since the instantaneous ones are
sometimes goofy or dangerous, here's a look at how we make interpretations.
- When It's Just Not Your Job
- Has your job become frustrating because the organization has lost its way? Is circumventing the craziness
making you crazy too? How can you recover your perspective despite the situation?
- Unnecessary Boring Work: II
- Workplace boredom can result from poor choices by the person who's bored. More often boredom comes from
the design of the job itself. Here's Part II of our little catalog of causes of workplace boredom.
- How to Get Out of Firefighting Mode: II
- We know we're in firefighting mode when a new urgent problem disrupts our work on another urgent problem,
and the new problem makes it impossible to use the solution we thought we had for some third problem
we were also working on. Here's Part II of a set of suggestions for getting out of firefighting mode.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming October 5: Downscoping Under Pressure: I
- When projects overrun their budgets and/or schedules, we sometimes "downscope" to save time and money. The tactic can succeed — and fail. Three common anti-patterns involve politics, the sunk cost effect, and cognitive biases that distort estimates. Available here and by RSS on October 5.
- And on October 12: Downscoping Under Pressure: II
- We sometimes "downscope" projects to bring them back on budget and schedule when they're headed for overruns. Downscoping doesn't always work. Cognitive biases like the sunk cost effect and confirmation bias can distort decisions about how to downscope. Available here and by RSS on October 12.
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