The Importance of Simplicity

The Importance of Simplicity

“[W]e believe that the underlying cause of the recent slowdown has been the ongoing, long-term rise of complicatedness.”  (Reinhard Messenbock, Yves Morieus, Jaap Backx, and Donat Wunderlich, ‘How Complicated is your Company?’, Boston Consulting Group.)

“Everything in war is simple, but the simplest thing is difficult” (Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Book 1, Ch 7.)

It is important to recognise the difference between Complex and Complicated. I consider a complex problem to be the same as a Wicked problem; there is no clear-cut solution, there are numerous levers that can be pulled, levers often owned by people that sit outside of the established hierarchy, often with unpredictable secondary and tertiary impacts on a wide variety of stakeholders, many of whom want opposite things but have similar levels of influence. In comparison a complicated problem is something that may have a lot of steps, but can be fixed. Given the tools, materials, and a detailed-enough instruction manual I could probably build a high-quality computer (I’ve never built a computer in my life). However, I couldn’t design a new OS to replace iOS. General McChrystal does a good job of examining the difference in Team of Teams.

The second point is that one of the fundamental principles of war is Simplicity. As the Dead Prussian’s quotation alludes to, the nature of conflict has within it enough fog and friction from external actors (by which I mean external to your organisation, although they may still be friendly forces) to make even simple activities hard enough. From the outside it might appear that moving an Armoured Infantry Company’s worth of vehicles (c. 18) from A to B is an easy job. It isn’t. Before departing one must plan for every eventuality, including, but not limited to, breakdown, direct fire attack, indirect fire attack, IED, getting lost, getting separated, having orders changed, having some of the route put out of bounds, having a flanking force stray into your AO and not knowing about it, being re-tasked and so on… any of which can even impact on getting to the line of departure in the first place. In sum, there is enough challenge inherent within the activity that any additional layers of process (such as additional checks) that get placed on top should only be produced if there is a clear reason to do so.

BCG’s article ‘How Complicated is Your Company?’ demonstrates that there are clear parallels with the business world. Their Complicatedness Survey chart demonstrates that those companies with above-average profit margins and above-average revenue growth are the ones that are the least complicated. Nugatory complicatedness has a number of negative effects which contribute to lower profits and growth. Although (potentially) providing necessary layers of assurance – which for an organisation such as the military which operates with public money may be more necessary than for partnerships – it leads to: increased Cost of Quality; lack of trust; lack of agility and flexibility; empowerment of process experts over output experts, and more.

Lean thinking can help, but it must be couched in a holistic view, driven by the top. Operators – those creating the output – should not be held back, but should be enabled by those that understand which boxes to tick and which forms to fill in. There is often little that can be done about the environment that we’re operating in. Today it is necessarily complex – Mary Kaldor’s ‘Old Wars’ have (largely) gone. In the business world and in the military we must continue to aggressively pursue simplicity, reduce process, reduce unnecessary layers of bureaucracy, and remain agile enough to not only respond to changes and development, but lead them.