Abraham, Mark, and Henny
by Rick Brenner
Our plans, products, and processes are often awkward, bulky, and complex. They lack a certain spiritual quality that some might call elegance. Yet we all recognize elegance when we see it. Why do we make things so complicated?
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
The article you've been reading is an archived issue of Point Lookout, my weekly newsletter. I've been publishing it since January, 2001, free to all subscribers, over the Web, and via RSS. You can help keep it free by donating either as or as . You'll receive in return my sincere thanks — and the comfort of knowing that you've helped to propagate insights and perspectives that can help make our workplaces a little more human-friendly. More
Your comments are welcome
Would you like to see your comments posted here? Send me your comments by email
, or by Web form
About Point Lookout
Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful,
and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend
Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive
of past issues. Subscribe for free.
Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout,
as an individual or as an organization.
Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in,
anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.
More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:
- Appreciate Differences
- In group problem solving, diversity of opinion and healthy, reasoned debate ensure that our conclusions take into account all the difficulties we can anticipate. Lock-step thinking — and limited debate — expose us to the risk of unanticipated risk.
- Running Your Personal Squirrel Cage
- As Glen rounded the corner behind the old oak, entering the last mile of his morning run, he suddenly realized that he was thinking about picking up the dry cleaning tomorrow and changing his medical appointment. Physically, he was jogging in a park, but mentally, he was running in a squirrel cage. How does this happen? What can we do about it?
- Status-Report as a Second Language
- Sometimes, the clichés the losing team's players feed to sports reporters can have hidden meaning. So it is with Project Status Reports, especially for projects in trouble.
- Make Space for Serendipity
- Serendipity in project management is rare, in part, because we're under too much pressure to see it. If we can reduce the pressure, wonderful things happen.
- Wacky Words of Wisdom: Part III
- Adages are so elegantly stated that we have difficulty doubting them. Here's Part III of a collection of often-misapplied adages.
See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness and Problem Solving and Creativity for more related articles.
Forthcoming Issues of Point Lookout
- Coming March 4: Virtual Trips to Abilene
- One dysfunction of face-to-face meetings is the Trip to Abilene, which leads groups to make decisions no members actually support. It can afflict virtual meetings, too, even more easily. Available here and by RSS on March 4.
- And on March 11: Historical Debates at Work
- One obstacle to high performance in teams is the historical debate — arguing about who said what and when, or who agreed to what and when. Here are suggestions for ending and preventing historical debates. Available here and by RSS on March 11.
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates.
Contact Rick for details at rbrenner@ChacoCanyon.com
or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.
Get the ebook!
Past issues of Point Lookout
are available in six ebooks:
Reprinting this article
Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline?
Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info
- Decision-Making for Team Leaders
- Effective group decision-making requires far more than knowing how to organize a discussion or take a vote. This program is designed for both new and experienced team leaders or team sponsors, managers, project managers, portfolio managers, program managers, and executives and general managers. It is especially valuable to people who work in organizations that confront fluid environments, in which decisions must be made in the context of uncertainty. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:
- The Race to the South Pole: Lessons in Risk Management for Leaders
- On 14 December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough. But to organizational leaders and project managers, the story is fascinating. We'll use the history of this event to explore lessons in risk management and its application to organizational efforts. A fascinating and refreshing look at risk management from the vantage point of history. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:
- Changing How We Change: The Essence of Agility
- Mastery of the ability to adapt to unpredictable and changing circumstances is one way of understanding the success of Agile methodologies for product development. Applying the principles of Change Mastery, we can provide the analogous benefits in a larger arena. By exploring strategies and tactics for enhancing both the resilience and adaptability of projects and portfolios, we show why agile methodologies are so powerful, and how to extend them beyond product development to efforts of all kinds. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:
- Managing in Fluid Environments
- Most people now work in environments that can best be characterized as fluid, because they're subject to continual change. We never know what's coming next. In such environments, managing — teams, projects, groups, departments, or the enterprise — often entails moving from surprise to surprise while somehow staying almost on track. It's a nerve-wracking existence. This program provides numerous tools that help managers who work in fluid environments. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:
- Cognitive Biases and Workplace Decision-Making
- For most of us, making decisions is a large part of what we do at work. And we tend to believe that we make our decisions rationally, except possibly when stressed or hurried. That is a mistaken belief — very few of our decisions are purely rational. In this eye-opening yet entertaining program, Rick Brenner guides you through the fascinating world of cognitive biases, and he'll give concrete tips to help you control the influence of cognitive biases. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program: