Strategic Management

Designing for Simplicity

More than two centuries ago, in his course on the importance of Style in Literature, George Lewes wisely remarked that ‘ the first obligation of Simplicity is that of using the simplest means to secure the fullest effect’ [1]. This is probably the most important aspect the adopters of the KISS mantra seem to ignore — solutions need to be simple while covering all or most important aspects to assure the maximum benefit. The challenge for many resides in defining what the maximum benefit is about. This state of art is typically poorly understood, especially when people don’t have the understanding of what’s possible, respectively of what’s necessary to make things work smoothly.

To make the simplicity principle work, one must envision the desired state of a product or solution and trace back what’s needed to achieve that vision. One can aim for the maximum or for the minimum possible, respectively for anything in between. That’s at least true in theory, in praxis there are constraints that limit the range of achievement, constraints ranging from the availability of resources, their maturity or the available time, respectively to the limits for growth — the learning capacity of individuals and organization as a whole.

On the other side following the 80/20 principle, one could achieve in theory 80% of a working solution with 20% of the effort needed in achieving the full 100%. This principle comes with a trick too, because one needs to focus on the important components or aspects of the solution for this to work. Otherwise one is forced to do exploratory work in which the learning is gradually assimilated into the solution. This implies continuous feedback, changing the targets as one progresses in multiple iterations. The approach is typically common to ERP implementations, BI and Data Management initiatives, or similar transformative projects which attempt changing an organization’s data, information, or knowledge flows — the backbones organizations are built upon.

These two principles can be used together to shape an organization. While simplicity sets a target or compass for quality, the 80/20 principle provides the means of splitting the roadmap and effort in manageable targets while allowing to identify the critical components of focus, and they seldom resume only to technology. While technologies provide a potential for transformation, in the end is an organization’s setup that has the transformative role.

For transformational synergies to happen, each person involved in the process must have a minimum of necessary skillset, knowledge and awareness of what’s required and how a solution can be harnessed. This minimum can be initially addressed through trainings and self-learning, however without certain mechanisms in place, the magic will not happen by itself. Change needs to be managed from within, by the people close to the flow, and when necessary also from the outside, by the ones who can provide guiding direction. Ideally a strategic approach is needed where the initial state is identified, the vision and the roadmap to address it are sketched, where intermediary targets are adequately mapped and pursued, and the progress is adequately tracked.

Thus, besides the technological components is needed to consider the required organizational components to support and manage change. These components form a structure which needs to adhere by design to the same principle of simplicity. According to Lewes, the ‘ simplicity of structure means organic unity’ [1], which can imply harmony, robustness, variety, balance, economy or proportion. Without these qualities the structure of the resulting edifice can break under its own weight. Moreover, paraphrasing Eric Hoffer, simplicity marks the end of a continuous process of designing, building, and refining, while complexity marks a primitive stage.

[1] George H Lewes (1865) “The Principles of Success in Literature”

“Simplicity of structure means organic unity, whether the organism be simple or complex; and hence in all times the emphasis which critics have laid upon Simplicity, though they have not unfrequently confounded it with narrowness of range.” (George H Lewes, “The Principles of Success in Literature”, 1865)
“The first obligation of Simplicity is that of using the simplest means to secure the fullest effect. But although the mind instinctively rejects all needless complexity, we shall greatly err if we fail to recognise the fact, that what the mind recoils from is not the complexity, but the needlessness.” (George H Lewes, “The Principles of Success in Literature”, 1865)
“In products of the human mind, simplicity marks the end of a process of refining, while complexity marks a primitive stage.” (Eric Hoffer, 1954)

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IT professional/blogger with more than 19 years experience in IT - Software Engineering, BI & Analytics, Data, Project, Quality, Database & Knowledge Management