Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 2, Issue 14;   April 3, 2002: Abraham, Mark, and Henny

Abraham, Mark, and Henny

by

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.

Something from Abraham; from Mark and from HennyAcross 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 them
Effective 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. Go to top Top  Next issue: How We Avoid Making Decisions  Next Issue

Rick BrennerThe 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? rbrenzoWyQlFJBWnkDVjener@ChacYyaJqSPayskvGBfboCanyon.comSend 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.

Related articles

More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:

Address fileSnapshots of Squirming Subjects
Today we use data as a management tool. We store, recall, and process data about our operations to help us manage resources and processes. But this kind of management data is often scattered, out of date, or just plain incorrect, and taking a snapshot doesn't work. There is a better way.
A hiker in the La Primavera calderaCommitment Makes It Easier
When you face obstacles, sometimes the path around or through them is difficult. Committing yourself to the path lets you focus all your energy on the path you've chosen.
A late rabbitGames for Meetings: Part III
We spend a lot of time and emotional energy in meetings, much of it engaged in any of dozens of ritualized games. Here's Part III of a little catalog of some of our favorites, and what we could do about them.
A hiker on a pathPaths
Most of us follow paths through our careers, or through life. We get nervous when we're off the path. We feel better when we're doing what everyone else is doing. But is that sensible?
The Stevens Memorial Library in Ashburnham, MassachusettsTake Charge of Your Learning
Many of us let others set our learning agendas — peers, employers, or the mass media. But you can gain much both personally and professionally by setting your own learning agenda.

See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness and Problem Solving and Creativity for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

North Fork Fire in Yellowstone, 1988Coming July 27: The Risks of Too Many Projects: Part II
Although taking on too many projects risks defocusing the organization, the problems just begin there. Here are three more ways over-commitment causes organizations to waste resources or lose opportunities. Available here and by RSS on July 27.
Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court Frank MurphyAnd on August 3: The Passion-Professionalism Paradox
Changing the direction of a group or a company requires passion and professionalism, two attributes often in tension. Here's one possible way to resolve that tension. Available here and by RSS on August 3.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenPiIyDHOtGCTJeIpzner@ChacfJoERxCfxYdZBTxyoCanyon.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

Public seminars

Sudoku Solutions, INK: A Simulation of a Project-Oriented Organization
In thCross-Functional Teams: How Organizations Actually Workis workshop, we simulate a company that solves Sudoku puzzles for its customers. Each puzzle is a project, solved by a project team led by a project manager. Team members hail from different parts of the organization, such as QA or the Department of Threes. Puzzles have different values, and the company must strive to meet revenue goals. The metaphor is uncanny. Lessons abound. Read more about this program. Here are some upcoming dates for this program:

Changing How We Change: The Essence of Agility
MasteChanging How We Change: The Essence of Agilityry 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:

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
Please donate!The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
How to Spot a Troubled Project Before the Trouble StartsLearn how to spot troubled projects before they get out of control.
52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around.
Reader Comments About My Newsletter
A sampling:
  • Your stuff is brilliant! Thank you!
  • You and Scott Adams both secretly work here, right?
  • I really enjoy my weekly newsletters. I appreciate the quick read.
  • A sort of Dr. Phil for Management!
  • …extremely accurate, inspiring and applicable to day-to-day … invaluable.
  • More
101 Tips for Managing ConflictFed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you the target of a bully? Learn how to make peace with conflict.
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.
Comprehensive Package of All Ebooks and Tips BooksSave a bundle and even more important save time! Order the Combo Package and download all ebooks and tips books at once.