Simplicity, Beauty, And Hard Work

Dan Ward

I was recently part of an awesome panel discussion about the changing role of the chief human resources officer in this digital age. As an author and technologist who has pretty much zero HR experience, I found the discussion both fascinating and surprisingly familiar.

It turns out, the changes and challenges facing HR professionals (and CHRO’s in particular) aren’t exactly unique. Changing generational demographics, gender inequality, globalization, and digitalization – these are just a few of the factors that HR professionals are dealing with. So is everyone else. It was eye-opening to see how the HR experts on the panel are wrestling with so many of the same issues I encounter in my work with engineers, program managers, and other tech leaders.

One of the main issues we discussed was complexity. Specifically, we talked about the way complexity is disruptive, slows things down, and makes progress difficult. I wrote a book titled The Simplicity Cycle, so that topic is definitely in my wheelhouse.

Whether we’re talking about designing a spacecraft or writing a hiring policy, unnecessary complexity can turn a good idea into a convoluted mess. In both cases, it is important to develop an appreciation for the value of simplicity. There’s something downright beautiful about a truly elegant, simple solution.

Unfortunately, elegant simplicity is really hard to achieve, as one of my fellow panelists pointed out. I couldn’t agree more, and in fact that’s a major theme in my book. Simplicity is hard work. That’s one of the reasons there’s so little of it out there.

But there’s another piece to this puzzle. While excessive complexity is indeed a formula for failure, simplicity is not always virtuous either, per se. One panelist pointed out that in the name of simplicity, many HR departments institute standardized procedures that are ugly and ineffective. Sure, they’re simpler (for the HR folks), but they are a step backwards compared to their more complex alternatives. They are less complicated, but also less good. I again found myself nodding in agreement.

If we put those ideas together we can readily see why the standardized approach so often fails. The simplistic, standardized solutions are ugly because they are easy. That is, the people who design and implement these one-size-fits-all solutions have often failed to do the difficult work required to produce elegant, beautiful simplicity. The result is simple, yes. But not in a good way. It’s a shallow simplicity that doesn’t convey the goodness and value we need.

Should we reject simplicity entirely? Must we settle for a hugely complicated approach to our processes, policies, or technologies? Of course not. This just means we ought to avoid overly simplified approaches that are the product of superficial efforts.

It means we have to do the hard work involved with reducing complexity and simultaneously increasing goodness. If the simple solution we produce is not beautiful, we’re not done with it yet.

I believe in simplicity. Simplifying things is generally a good idea. But like any tool, mastery of simplicity takes time and practice. And like any tool, simplicity can be used badly. So as we work to make things simpler, whether we’re talking about technologies, organizations, or processes, it’s important to pay attention to whether our simplifications are deep improvements or just superficial window dressing.

The article originally appeared on Dan’s blog and was syndicated with his permission.

For more insight on reducing complexity, see Simplifying Small And Midsize Enterprises To Boost Growth.