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April 3, 2002 Volume 2, Issue 14
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Abraham, Mark, and Henny


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
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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

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Forthcoming Issues of Point Lookout

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Disagreeing with the majority in a meeting, or in some cases, merely disagreeing with the Leader, can lead to isolation and other personal difficulties. Here is Part II of a set of tactics used by Leaders who choose not to tolerate differences of opinion, emphasizing the meeting context. Available here and by RSS on December 2.
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At times, groups can become so embroiled in destructive conflict that conventional conflict resolution becomes ineffective. How does this happen? What can we do about it? Available here and by RSS on December 9.

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