By now, you have probably all read the newly approved approximately 500 page tax bill as well as the 600 or so page conference report explaining what the bill does. No? Well surely each and every word of obtuse language and cross-referencing was read and understood by the 100 Senators and 435 Representatives who voted on it…

The government is not the only entity that tends to complexify. We all do it. Often people think the more complex the idea or solution they propose, the smarter they sound. Or perhaps they feel that a complex problem requires a complex solution. Sometimes it’s just too much work to pay enough attention so you can find a simpler way.

Getting to simple is not easy. It takes time and concentrated thought to identify and wade through the extraneous and focus on the heart of the matter. As the philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote in 1657: “I would have written a shorter letter but I did not have the time.”

The most important and simplest facts which will lead to the best solution might be right in front of you, but you look right past them. More often it requires significant effort to dig them out of a morass of complexity. It can be a lonely excavation as those around you compound the problem by adding more and more layers of facts, figures and conjectures to the pile.

Often the easiest way to find the simplest solution is to question things. In the days before the Internet, I had a client who complained to me that he spent several days each month painstakingly gathering statistics to prepare a voluminous company report. The preparer thought it was a worthless report and a waste of his time since not one of the fifty people he sent it to ever said a word about it.

I suggested he prepare the report the next month but hold off sending it out. And see what happened.

A few days after he was supposed to send out the report he called me. He was ecstatic. He received exactly one call about the report not arriving. When he asked the caller if they needed the whole thing he was told “No. I only need two numbers.” When he asked if it would be ok if he only sent those two numbers the answer was “That would be great. I just throw the rest of the report away.”

Curious about why this report was produced in the first place since no one needed it, I investigated. No one had the answer.  Creating it was just a time consuming complex task that was repeated month after month, year after year in spite of the fact that the report was basically useless. While he knew creating it was a waste of time, the preparer never bothered to ask a very simple question. Does anyone care if I stop sending out this report?

Take a look around your organization. Are you a victim of or the source of useless complexification? Where are the places that you can simplify to make things easier on everyone? How can you drill down to the root cause of issues in order to find easier paths to solutions? How can you simplify down to the critical elements and focus your attention on them? And, of course, how can you eliminate the work that serves no purpose?

You can do better than the U.S. Congress. Simplify.





Commenting area

  1. Well stated. Simplifying requires discipline, but pays great dividends. And I’m thrilled to know where the famous quote comes from. For years, I have mistakenly attributed it to Franklin or Twain.

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