The Art of Simplification

Per­fec­tion is achieved not when there is noth­ing more to add but when there is noth­ing left to take away. This stan­dard, craft­ed by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, sug­gests some poten­tial for improve­ment in pub­lic admin­is­tra­tion and large cor­po­ra­tions. But what is the rea­son that the rules are becom­ing more and more and the process­es more and more com­pli­cat­ed? Per­haps, in the end, it is sim­ply due to our ten­den­cy to seek solu­tions by adding rather than solv­ing the prob­lem by omit­ting, as demon­strat­ed in recent research.

What hap­pens to admin­is­tra­tion when work becomes less? This was the ques­tion posed by Cyril North­cote Parkin­son. His sub­ject of the inves­ti­ga­tion was the British Colo­nial Office, which was respon­si­ble for the admin­is­tra­tion of the British colonies from 1854 to 1966. Parkin­son found that the num­ber of civ­il ser­vants grew steadi­ly regard­less of the work avail­able. The Colo­nial Office had the most civ­il ser­vants in 1966 when it was inte­grat­ed into the For­eign Office for lack of colonies to admin­is­ter. It was a busy orga­ni­za­tion — most­ly with itself.

Work expands so as to fill the time avail­able for its completion.

Cyril North­cote Parkin­son in (Parkin­son, 1955)

Sim­pli­fi­ca­tion is an art that admin­is­tra­tions seem to mas­ter less well. Less is more. This was the mot­to used by Bauhaus archi­tect Lud­wig Mies van der Rohe to describe this art. His col­league Richard Buck­min­ster Fuller took a sim­i­lar view, although he was refer­ring more to the func­tion­al aspects: “Doing more with less.”

Less is more — and requires more work. Not only in archi­tec­ture but also, the French math­e­mati­cian Blaise Pas­cal apol­o­gized in 1656 for his lin­guis­tic excess­es: “I have made the present let­ter so long for no oth­er rea­son than because I have not had time to make it short­er.” And his Hun­gar­i­an col­league Paul Erdős believed in “The Book,” a book of God, which he thought con­tained all the ele­gant and per­fect math­e­mat­i­cal proofs.

So now, if these great thinkers and artists agree that sim­plic­i­ty is the high­est form of per­fec­tion, as Leonar­do da Vin­ci so apt­ly put it, how does this can­cer­ous growth of pub­lic admin­is­tra­tions like the British Colo­nial Office and their exces­sive bureau­cra­cy come about? This phe­nom­e­non can be observed in almost iden­ti­cal fash­ion in large cor­po­ra­tions that have grown over decades; it reg­u­lar­ly pro­duces fruit­less projects for de-bureaucratization.

Indeed, busy knowl­edge work­ers feel like Blaise Pas­cal and don’t have time to stream­line the process­es. In addi­tion, there is an inter­est­ing soci­o­log­i­cal dynam­ic that Cyril North­cote Parkin­son describes as the cause of the phe­nom­e­non he observed. On the one hand, every employ­ee tries to increase the num­ber of his sub­or­di­nates, not the num­ber of his rivals. And on the oth­er hand, employ­ees cre­ate work for each oth­er. This is still an apt sum­ma­ry of the rea­sons for mas­sive fric­tion in large organizations.

But per­haps the cause lies much more pro­found in our human psy­che and ten­den­cies, as (Meyvis & Yoon, 2021) sum­ma­rize the research of (Adams et al., 2021): “A series of prob­lem-solv­ing exper­i­ments reveal that peo­ple are more like­ly to con­sid­er solu­tions that add fea­tures than solu­tions that remove them, even when remov­ing fea­tures is more efficient.”

In one exper­i­ment, par­tic­i­pants had the task of improv­ing the sta­bil­i­ty of a Lego struc­ture so that the roof would end up sup­port­ing a brick. Par­tic­i­pants would receive a dol­lar if suc­cess­ful, but each addi­tion­al Lego brick cost 10 cents. Since the roof ini­tial­ly rest­ed on a sin­gle brick far off the cen­ter of grav­i­ty, most par­tic­i­pants added more bricks to sta­bi­lize the roof. How­ev­er, it would have been much eas­i­er and more prof­itable to remove the sin­gle stone at the roof’s edge and then place the roof sta­bly on top of the rest of the structure.

Source: (Meyvis & Yoon, 2021)

Sim­pli­fy­ing does­n’t seem to suit us. We’d instead make more of the same, and if that does­n’t help, we increase our efforts even more. This uni­ver­sal human ten­den­cy com­bined with Ger­man thor­ough­ness per­haps explains the exten­sive Ger­man tax leg­is­la­tion and fine­ly chis­eled trav­el expense guide­lines in DAX corporations.

References

Parkin­son, C. N. (1955). Parkinson’s Law. The Econ­o­mist177(5856), 635 – 637.

Meyvis, T., & Yoon, H. (2021). Adding is favoured over sub­tract­ing in prob­lem solv­ing. Nature592(7853), 189 – 190. https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-021 – 00592‑0 (PDF)

Adams, G. S., Con­verse, B. A., Hales, A. H., & Klotz, L. E. (2021). Peo­ple sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly over­look sub­trac­tive changes. Nature592(7853), 258 – 261. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-021 – 03380‑y

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By Marcus Raitner

Hi, I'm Marcus. I'm convinced that elephants can dance. Therefore, I accompany organizations on their way towards a more agile way of working. Since 2010 I regularly write about leadership, digitization, new work, agility, and much more in this blog. More about me.

1 Comment

Very sim­ple and short les­son about the cor­po­rate resis­tance to sim­pli­fi­ca­tion. It´s a day to day fight !!

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