Thursday, October 20, 2011

Complexity is easy, simplicity is hard

In management, complexity is an excuse for not really understanding the problem. I find a lot of managers rush into decisions without taking time to clarify the real issue in their own mind. As a manager you need to make the effort to simplify your thinking about a problem. Imagine this approach: to really understand a problem, you need to be able to explain it to your grandmother. Once you have that kind of clarity, you are ready to take rational action to solve the problem.

Clarity of thinking is a rare commodity in all walks of life. For example, the battle of Waterloo was a turning point in European history. Did Wellington win it with a series of complex strategies? Did he outfox one of history's greatest generals through sheer intellectual power? Nope. There are several reasons for the victory, but ultimately Wellington just picked a good place to fight. He picked the right ground and built his battle plan around a defensible ridge. Not complicated. But he decisively changed the course of history.

Hemingway, renowned for his economy of words, was once asked to write the shortest story possible. He used six words: "Baby shoes. For sale. Never used." An emotionally powerful message conveyed with remarkable brevity. Can you have the same effect as a manager? Creating a clear message starts with simplifying the problem. Simplification builds clarity. That is hard work. It is easy to assume a problem is complicated.

What does this mean to a manager facing challenges this morning?

Think about your strategic plan. Is that 100 page strategic plan full of spreadsheets and complicated charts ever going to be read? What if the plan was only 10 pages with lots of easy to read graphics? In any strategy there are probably only 5 or 6 strategic changes you really need. Boil it down to the core principles of needed change. Then explain how you want to get there in clear language.

On a smaller scale, think about that business case for a new project. Do you think you can sell the idea in a 25 page detailed memorandum? I doubt it. No one has the patience to read the whole thing. If your audience isn't paying attention, how can they approve its funding? Keep it short and to the point. Make your case and move on.

Applying lessons to management from writing fiction and fighting wars may seem like a stretch. But these are all human endeavours requiring similar problem solving skills. I think Wellington would have made a great corporate president and Hemingway could have been a brilliant software entrepreneur. What about you?


1 comment:

  1. I learned the importance of brevity and clarity in my previous position. I was an IT guy that worked directly for the Chairman of a privately held group of companies. I described him as a sleeping giant dragon. When a new project was upon us, it was in everyone's best interest to not wake the dragon if at all possible. When it was necessary to wake him, it wasn't long before the flames would engulf everyone within reach. I found creative ways to state my position and get out of harm's way quickly, as the dragon's patience was VERY limited; as in nil.

    Great post.