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 an individual or as an organization. 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:
- When Your Boss Is a Micromanager
- If your boss is a micromanager, your life can be a seemingly endless misery of humiliation and frustration. Changing your boss is one possible solution, but it's unlikely to succeed. What you can do is change the way you experience the micromanagement.
- Smart Bookshelves
- If you like to browse in bookstores, you probably know the thrill of new ideas and new perspectives. When I find a book worth reading, I want to own it, and that's how it gets to my shelf. Here are some tips to help you read more of what you really want to read.
- Let Me Finish, Please
- We use meetings to exchange information and to explore complex issues. In open discussion, we tend to interrupt each other. Interruptions can be disruptive, distracting, funny, essential, and frustratingly common. What can we do to limit interruptions without depriving ourselves of their benefits?
- Workplace Barn Raisings
- Until about 75 years ago, barn raising was a common custom in the rural United States. People came together from all parts of the community to help construct one family's barn. Although the custom has largely disappeared in rural communities, we can still benefit from the barn raising approach in problem-solving organizations.
- Office Automation
- Desktop computers, laptop computers, and tablets have automation capabilities that can transform our lives, but few of us use them. Why not? What can we do about that?
See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness and Problem Solving and Creativity for more related articles.
Forthcoming Issues of Point Lookout
- Coming May 6: Compulsive Talkers at Work: Addiction
- Incessant, unending talking about things that the listener doesn't care about, already knows about, or can do nothing about is an irritating behavior that harms both talker and listener. What can we do about this? Available here and by RSS on May 6.
- And on May 13: Compulsive Talkers at Work: Power
- Compulsive talkers are unlikely to change their behavior in response to your polite (or even impolite) requests. In this second part of our exploration, we consider the role of power — both personal and organizational. Available here and by RSS on May 13.
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
- 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:
- Ten Project Management Fallacies: The Power of Avoiding Hazards
- Most of what we know about managing projects is useful and effective, but some of what we know "just ain't so." Identifying the fallacies of project management reduces risk and enhances your ability to complete projects successfully. Even more important, avoiding these traps can demonstrate the value and power of the project management profession in general, and your personal capabilities in particular. In this program we describe ten of these beliefs. There are almost certainly many more, but these ten are a good start. We'll explore the situations where these fallacies are most likely to expose projects to risk, and suggest techniques for avoiding them. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:
- 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:
- 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: