The Death of Complexity and The Rise of Small Things

I have an obsession with simple things.

Normally, we take pride in getting the complex stuff right. It is more glamorous, more prestigious; getting simple things right seems so mundane in comparison. The formulation of the grand overarching five year strategy traditionally occupy the finest minds in the company (or at least those with the highest pay level). The actual day-to-day implementation – making sure that the product will in fact work – well, that is more appropriate for lesser minds to deal with. There is little doubt that in the minds of most organisations, doing strategy is somehow ‘finer’ than doing implementation.

There is something fundamentally wrong with our obsession with complexity. I started thinking about this when I was a platoon commander in the army, participating in large-scale field exercises. There, I noticed that in 90 to 95 percent of the cases, when something went wrong, it wasn’t because of the complex stuff. The complex stuff received a lot of attention and careful advance planning, and had a decent success rate, all things considered. It was the simple stuff that went wrong. Somebody would confuse left and right, and botch up a major part of the exercise. Someone else would accidentally push the wrong button on the radio, so that the support divisions didn’t hear the attack order, with predictable results. Or a third somebody would mix up two numbers and end up calling an airstrike on his own headquarters (not a great career move).

To sum it up: most of the time, it is the simple things that go wrong. And this is really stupid, because the simple things are a lot easier to fix than the complicated things. Nobody can fully mastermind a global, multi-stage product launch, but we can make sure that the guy in the marketing division talks regularly with the guy in the sales division. We can’t predict all of the organisational changes that will take place because of our flashy new sales database system, but we can make sure that the user interface can be understood by the people who are to enter the data in the first place.

So, here’s my suggestion: for the next week or two, forget everything about the strategy of your company. Postpone your meetings with all those visionaries that want to tell you about the future. Instead, start focusing on the simple things, on the here and now. And don’t stop until you are sure that they work, and work well. Only then will it make sense to return to the higher spheres of planning, secure in the knowledge that your grand visions won’t founder on the shores of simplicity.

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