Against the Over-Regulation of Collaboration

Less, but bet­ter. This mot­to of the famous Ger­man design­er Dieter Rams should guide us not only in the design of prod­ucts, but also in the design of our col­lab­o­ra­tion. In the most cas­es work­ing togeth­er in large orga­ni­za­tions is over-reg­u­lat­ed and the peo­ple in these orga­ni­za­tions are over-pro­tect­ed. The result­ing sta­bil­i­ty and secu­ri­ty in hon­or, but indi­vid­ual ini­tia­tive, cre­ativ­i­ty and top per­for­mance are sti­fled by this abun­dance of rules. Accord­ing to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, col­lab­o­ra­tion is only per­fect­ly reg­u­lat­ed when noth­ing can be omit­ted. A plea against the inca­pac­i­tat­ing and humil­i­at­ing over-reg­u­la­tion of col­lab­o­ra­tion.

Per­fec­tion is achieved, not when there is noth­ing more to add, but when there is noth­ing left to take away.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Sim­plic­i­ty is the ulti­mate sophis­ti­ca­tion. Apple used this slo­gan (lat­er mis­tak­en­ly attrib­uted to Leonar­do daVin­ci) to pro­mote the Apple II in 1977. In terms of design and usabil­i­ty, Apple then (and since then repeat­ed­ly) set stan­dards for per­son­al com­put­ers and opened up a whole new mar­ket with this unique sell­ing propo­si­tion.

Apple Com­put­er, 1977

Using Apple as an exam­ple, it is also easy to explain what is at stake if focus and sim­plic­i­ty are lost. After Steve Jobs left Apple in 1985 in a dis­pute with John Scul­ly, Apple diver­si­fied its prod­ucts and lost focus. The prod­uct port­fo­lio became con­fus­ing and arbi­trary, and over the years it became a life-threat­en­ing lega­cy for Apple.

That’s been one of my mantras — focus and sim­plic­i­ty. Sim­ple can be hard­er than com­plex: You have to work hard to get your think­ing clean to make it sim­ple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move moun­tains.

Steve Jobs

Only a rad­i­cal reduc­tion of the prod­uct port­fo­lio after the return of Steve Jobs in 1997 saved Apple from the almost cer­tain bank­rupt­cy: A four-field matrix with desk­top and portable on one axis and con­sumer and pro­fes­sion­al on the oth­er. He thus reduced Apple’s hope­less­ly exu­ber­ant port­fo­lio by around 70% to man­age­able four prod­uct lines. Less but bet­ter.

Not all com­pa­nies lose their focus as dra­mat­i­cal­ly as Apple or at least not with such dra­mat­ic con­se­quences, but basi­cal­ly the ten­den­cy to have over­loaded prod­ucts and over­flow­ing prod­uct port­fo­lios is rec­og­niz­able in many places, although hope­ful­ly not as extreme as in this grandiose com­ic. Equal­ly rec­og­niz­able and per­cep­ti­ble is the ten­den­cy to over-reg­u­late col­lab­o­ra­tion in a inca­pac­i­tat­ing and humil­i­at­ing way through an excess of process­es, guide­lines and instruc­tions.

Truth is ever to be found in sim­plic­i­ty, and not in the mul­ti­plic­i­ty and con­fu­sion of things.

Isaac New­ton

There are always good rea­sons to add some­thing new, a new func­tion to a prod­uct as well as a new rule, a new instruc­tion or a new process. Every spe­cial case, every abuse, every even­tu­al­i­ty must then be con­sid­ered and reg­u­lat­ed. Where would we all end up?

Where would we end up?
When every­one said,
Where would we end up,
And no one would go,
To have a look,
Where you’d end up,
If you went.

Kurt Mar­ti

Good ques­tion. We would leave the flood of con­crete rules behind us and move towards a few basic prin­ci­ples of coop­er­a­tion. Although they need com­mon sense in their appli­ca­tion and, after years of over-reg­u­la­tion, this com­mon sense must of course first be sharp­ened again, but a brief look at the Net­flix Cul­ture State­ment shows that it is pos­si­ble in prin­ci­ple and leads to high­ly moti­vat­ed employ­ees. Expens­es and con­tracts: “use good judg­ment”, trav­el expens­es: “act in Netflix’s best inter­est”, hol­i­days: “take vaca­tion” or parental leave: “take care of your baby and your­self”.

The authors of the Man­i­festo for Agile Soft­ware Devel­op­ment also val­ued sim­plic­i­ty in form of one of their twelve prin­ci­ples, which is hard­ly sur­pris­ing, as they object­ed to the over-reg­u­la­tion of soft­ware devel­op­ment by heavy­weight process mod­els with their Man­i­festo. And to avoid mis­un­der­stand­ings, they deliv­ered a very use­ful def­i­n­i­tion at the same time: Sim­plic­i­ty is the art of max­i­miz­ing the amount of work not done. In this sense and in the words of Anja Förster and Peter Kreuz: “Kill a stu­pid rule!” Many of them.

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