Getting Simple Right
Getting Simple Right

Getting Simple Right

The art of organizational vitality.

Appears in Winter 2018

Simplicity is very difficult for us as individuals. It is even more difficult for organizations and institutions. Imagine opening the hood of your car and being told that half of the wires, hoses, belts, and mechanical devices are not needed and you are to remove the excess parts such that the car still functions. Most of us would have very little chance of completing such a task. Or think about the difficulties of packing for a trip where you are instructed to bring only what you need and no more: it takes a lot of effort to bring just enough. Organizational leaders face a similar tension: how do you provide a balance of control and freedom so that the group or organization can carry out the necessary work in the best way possible? While all organizations have common features, the way we choose to balance control and freedom can lead to very different companies and cultures.

There are many ways for simplicity to become a harmful form of minimalism. Minimalism, characterized as the efficiency- and control-driven expression of modernity, means getting rid of overlap, redundancy, ambiguity, uncertainty, and complications. The impulse is to pare things away until all superfluous elements have been removed. But if you don’t know what is vital and you reduce the living complexity of something, it becomes more fragile. A fragile entity is vulnerable to unexpected disruptions. It turns out to be very difficult to simplify a living thing without doing great harm to what makes it alive. There are strong parallels with human organizations.

The most natural and powerful state for an organization is realized when your actions and your statements are so integrated that even if it isn’t written down, you and those you lead just live it out.

It is natural to embark on making our organizations work better by adding various forms of “sophistication” to a process or function. Increasingly complicated computational, procedural, and legal structures can, step by step, begin to change our capacity to adapt. Our well-meaning efforts to reduce overlap by formalizing roles, for instance, can end up decreasing our responsiveness to unknown bumps, and actually increase our risk of failure if those changes are based on an assumption of context stability. When we layer on the proceduralism such formerly natural processes and repositories of knowledge get formalized, we may feel better about our well-oiled machine. If an organization were a machine and that machine was in a climate-controlled environment with few external shocks, then we would be doing great. The problem is, there are very few cultural environments where organizations do not experience destabilizing shocks externally or internally.

Finding the right kind of complexity is essential. One of the many enduring insights of designer and architect Christopher Alexander (famous for his book A Pattern Language) is that the changes we make in an organization or process very often reduce the complexity needed to sustain the vitality of a given entity. Whether that entity or context is a suburban development, a piece of software, or a strategic plan, our modernist instincts for control, efficiency, and standardization nearly always move toward a reduction of complexity in ways that are harmful. Alexander uses many examples in “A City Is Not a Tree” (by which he means a logic tree, not a living tree) of how organizing in the wrong way can reduce complexity by putting artificial boundaries on elements that should relate to each other and overlap. Although his observation is decades old, it is a very valuable insight that needs ongoing contemplation and deliberation.

Let me explain Alexander’s core illustration. If you have twenty people in a room and allow any combination of people to form groups, there are two profoundly different results based on one simple rule change. In the first instance, groups cannot overlap. In the second instance, overlaps are allowed; that is, you can be a member of multiple groups. Like many organizational changes, these kinds of small rules don’t seem to matter. But if they are at critical junctions or critical control points in a process, the outcomes can be radically different. How different?

Mathematically, a group of 20 people formed into subgroups without overlaps yields a possible number of groups expressed by (n-1), which in this case is 20 - 1 =19. There are at most 19 possible sub-groups that can be formed by an initial group of 20 people. If overlapping groups are allowed, that is, if each of the 20 people can belong to more than one group, the possible combinations are 2n, which in this case is 220 = 1,048,576 possible groups. That’s a significant difference produced by one small rule change. But how does that matter for organizations and our exploration of simplicity?

To begin with, living systems, ecologies, bodies, and minds are composed of the 2n type of arrangement. Many of the procedural, managerial, and bureaucratic processes in organizations and institutions are an attempt to move these 2n living systems toward the (n-1) arrangement. That is, we’re tempted to associate simplicity—and hence efficiency—with the (n-1) arrangement. Which seems to make sense: 19 is a lot “simpler” than 1,048,576.

Membership in many and diverse overlapping groups is the difference between an official organizational chart and the actual patterns of relationships that constitute an organization. Carefully defined roles; standardized procedures that allow people to be swapped out without organizational disruption; master-planned city streets that have the same retail, spacing, transportation, and design processes embedded in them whether you are in Buenos Aires or Buena Vista—these are all symptomatic of such badly simplified processes. From a design standpoint, simple (difficult but valuable) can become simplistic (easier but much more costly) if there is a reduction in the possible use, function, or modifiability of an object, system, or process.

Too Small to Simplify?

Nature bites back hard when we exercise misguided minimalism that moves a 2n dynamic function toward a more constrained (n-1). Organizations that engage controlling instincts in errands of folly will find their systems acting back in unexpected and sometimes cataclysmic ways as well. Money invested in solving a problem may not lead to increased vitality, so more money is invested, the problem deepens, and so on. Some of the most striking examples of this are the “too big to fail” companies or industries that seemed beyond disruption but that are no longer in business.

At this stage of the twenty-first century, we are aware that large, powerful entities collapse. Companies with tremendous growth suffer incurable and dramatic decline. Industries that seemed unstoppable are suddenly shuttering factories across the country. The wrong kind of simplicity—the kind that leads to inadequate adjustments to change—has come home to collect the bills, and it may not be pretty. Post-mortem analyses of failed companies, large and small, have led some organizational scholars to observe that the seeds of failure were sown during the decisions-making days of success. That is a sobering thought. A good rule of thumb is that very often, when we increase our feeling of control, we have increased our organizational fragility.

It is very hard for us to see how making things faster, standardized, or neat can weaken our organizations and lead to dehumanizing effects. Imagine that you get rid of your compost pile because it is messy. One result could be that a year or two down the road the garden patch that depended on that compost produces less. Sterile, clean, organism-free soil looks great for someone who wants to control all the uninvited plants and creatures, but it would mean a much less fruitful environment. The famous Henry Ford remark that his assembly line needed the man’s hand but had to take the whole of the man suggests how the pressures of simplification can reduce the humanity of an organization.

Size is commonly invoked to explain bureaucracy—that you need to be big to be bureaucratic. Think of a government, or a major corporation. But these dynamics are not about size, per se. If it were, only the big players would face the risk fragility through the wrong kind of simplification. The challenge is that you don’t need to be big to be fragile. A group of any size can—and often does—fall prey to this same way of thinking. More than a hundred years ago Max Weber, in Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology, argued that while we may claim that our particular organization, as a social structure, is unique or different because it is a charity or a school, such organizations are actually not that different. He claims that whether we have in mind a church, military unit, or business organization, it is the spirit of the impersonal and the efficient, the bureaucratic, that may pervade them all. Their functional ideal, said Weber, is that they operate “without hatred or passion and hence without affection or enthusiasm.” Bureaucracy is an attitude, a spirit, a sensibility. It was this spirit that Hannah Arendt flagged in her controversial evaluation of Eichmann as a banal civil servant enacting horrors from a bureaucrat’s desk.

A commitment to processes over people is a form of minimalism, a means of “formatting” complex human beings to fit constrained roles. Wendell Berry is often sidelined as an eco-weirdo or agricultural holdout for the good (and irretrievably gone) days of human-scale agrarian life. It simply isn’t true. Berry is an unrelenting student of what makes us human. He is rigorous, a true scientist, or, perhaps more accurately, a classic naturalist who observes and thinks and observes some more. Although science is often cast as an opposite of that earlier agrarian lifestyle, Berry is not an opponent of science. Rather, he argues that science is not rigorous enough—that it selects controlled, very narrow slices of things, applies a modernistic organizational management philosophy to the problem, and in time makes the problem much worse. Rigour is not the flaw in modern science—oversimplification has made the application of the science dangerous. From the East Coast cod fishery to the draining of swamps to the artificial prevention of forest fires: when science gets reified through policy and decision-making processes, organizations, and institutions, we simplify complex natural ecologies by selecting or narrowing things toward our wants, and things often go wrong. We should be careful because these unintended effects, whether in natural or social systems, have proved they will play out regardless of how sound our intentions are.

Navigating the tensions of function and complexity requires a means to successfully sort out options—to find a way to catch the sometimes subtle scent that guides a given organization to fruitfulness. More than a decade ago, Bo Burlingham wrote a book called Small Giants to shed light on unusual businesses that stayed small even though their success provided ample opportunities to get much bigger. He discovered that, despite tremendous cultural pressure, certain small companies that were very valuable, productive, and effective intentionally put a stop to growth in the service of higher values such as organizational culture and human well-being.

Burlingham’s research revealed that many core “commonsense” and largely unquestioned business axioms are false (an axiom can be identified by the horridly common line “this is how a real business runs”): Businesses must grow or die. False. A thriving business is dynamic, but it need not get bigger. A business must be first or second in market share in its niche. False. It may offer something very unique or offer something common in a unique way, but it doesn’t have to dominate to thrive. A business must get to the “next level” because bigger is better. False. Very often, bigger can mean worse if it dilutes the magic that brought the company success. Companies must increase shareholder value no matter what. False. Public companies, he points out, are obligated to increase shareholders profit in this way, but private companies (or charities, not-for-profits, and their like) are not. In some settings growth is a necessity for ongoing competitiveness. He isn’t suggesting every organization will make these choices, but he points out that there are real exceptions to accepted axioms, and those exceptions may provide valuable insight about right-sizing organizational ambition. He also notes that most companies are not public or large but those that are have a disproportionate share of the attention, publishing, and cultural formation that influences what we see as legitimate—they power the axioms. Facing this distortion may be even more critical for organizations that claim to operate with the peculiar features of Christian principles.

Simplification, Complexity, and Formation

All groups, organizations, and institutions are about formation because they are all social. Social means contagious, and it means influence, and it means common habits—formal and informal. The problem is that many organizations and institutions enact pseudo-segmentation. They imagine, for example, that the “teaching” parts of their work are the formation and the rest is just process. This is a misguided notion. We may think we have the luxury of asking, Does our organization engage in formation? It is a false question. The only legitimate question we can ask is: What kind of formation do we engage in, and is it what we have intended to enact? You will be much, much better positioned to navigate the treacherous waters of normality if you think of organizational development more as an aesthetic process—deeply personal; driven by attending to heart, mind, and body; paying attention to what doesn’t feel right; and getting angry at anything that bastardizes that. Becoming a “normal” or “legitimate” organization requires getting into the flow of what everyone else is doing. If that is the aim of your simplifications, then much of what I’ve written won’t be of interest. But for leaders looking at more than the typical, the challenges of alternative approaches must be intensively explored. How can you angle across the flow of the stream when everything around you is chasing after the normal, respected, legitimate?

Amid the complexity and challenge of organizational leadership, it is easy to make the fatal mistake of thinking noble statements of mission, purpose, or vision are sufficient to protect you from harmful constraints or peer pressure—that the words somehow are what give you focus. The most natural and powerful state for an organization is realized when your actions and your statements are so integrated that even if it isn’t written down, you and those you lead just live it out. This is, of course, both rare and difficult in our all-to-normal times. Far more common are managed simplifications that use formal methods as a means of selling their legitimacy. Such compromises will inevitably lead to organizational erosion over time. Success can cover that up for a good while, but the mask won’t bear weight for long. Simplicity is not saying your mission statement louder or longer or getting it written in granite on your building. Who cares. If you need a bumper sticker to tell people how great you are, you probably aren’t.

When Simple Is Standard

As I have already alluded, simplicity faces strong headwinds in the form of institutional influence. The landscape for organizations is a have/have-not environment, just as it is for individuals. The “winners” determine what counts. It is an extension of the old adage that knowledge is power, but the powerful determine what knowledge counts. Your imagination may not be your own. The books, videos, conferences, and blogs that are published, talked about, promoted, and that work their way into “accepted thinking” are not coming from the have-not part of the organizational landscape. Wisdom has taught us that you become like your friends. The same is true for organizations. You become like your peer organizations for good or ill. This may be more important as the have/have-not gaps grow across all sectors.

One of the pathways of organizational peer pressure is the accountability structures composed of board members, investors, or donors. Those who invest in and support organizations whether for profit or charitable ends always bring certain values with them, axioms of practice. It is not a simple matter to determine if those values support the status quo of control and misguided simplification or insightful enrichment of the culture of the organization. For leaders of all kinds, these are very, very critical considerations. Assumptions come to us through normal procedures. What do you do when you conduct a meeting? You use Roberts Rules of Order. Are they the right thing for you? Doesn’t matter. It’s just what you do. Or how about organizing a board? Let’s use the Carver model. Are the baked-in assumptions of that model a natural expression of your organization? Who knows? It’s just what you do to be a credible, respected organization—it’s what people are familiar with. These kinds of structural assumptions may simplify our organizations in hazardous ways. It is easier to use what is given. But such influence may be very costly in the long run.

Another adjacent pathway for influence is accepted practices, the direct and indirect “industry standards” that shape our form. Industry standards, as Tom Peters likes to say, are a pathway to the grey middle where everyone else is already occupying the territory, fighting for a top spot in a margin of diminishing returns. These efforts can drive minimalism, embracing the simplicity of what is expedient through the well-paved path of what is accepted. Like the wind, water, and temperature change that turns mountains to sand, this can erode what may be exceptional about your organization. Almost all organizations want to be the best, to change the world or their sector. If the first instinct is to look around to see who you can imitate, the game us up. There is no mercy here. If you don’t get this right, whatever language, cleverness, or power you exercise will only drive the wedge between conformity and exceptionality deeper. Controlled innovation is a dream. You feed one at the expense of the other. Consider the role of trust in truly great organizations. We tell people we trust them but multiply page upon page of new regulations in our employee handbooks, which often implies that they are not trustworthy, that they lack good judgement, and that this document will provide it. It may be that an employee manual, for example, should shrink as much as grow. A larger and larger manual is a sign of immaturity or inattention, while a shrinking manual could be a sign of careful discernment and wise stewardship of the life of the organization. The challenge is that we may kill organizational vitality by cutting the rich complexity or clogging the natural structures that feed our best work.

Sometimes a longer historical view can be helpful in thinking about these kinds of dynamics. Missiologist David Bosch cites H. Richard Niebuhr and Lesslie Newbigin, who had observed the powerful effect that monasteries had on Europe and Christianity. In comparison to the more militant nature of the medieval church, there was something unique about monasticism:

Less ambivalent, however, was the monastic movement and its contribution to the Christianization of Europe. We may perhaps even say that, humanly speaking, it was because of monasticism that so much authentic Christianity evolved in the course of Europe’s “dark ages” and beyond. Only monasticism, says Niebuhr, saved the medieval church from acquiescence, petrifaction, and the loss of its vision and truly revolutionary character.

This very durable and influential organizational form was well tested, but as many times as they were plundered and destroyed, monasteries would always find a way to rebuild or to locate a new niche in which to grow. He says that ninety-nine out of a hundred monasteries could be burnt down and the monks killed or driven out . . . and yet the whole tradition could be reconstituted from the one survivor, and the desolate sites could be re-peopled by fresh supplies of monks who would take up again the broken tradition, following the same rule, singing the same liturgy, reading the same books and thinking the same thoughts as their predecessors.

Bosch argues that the monks did not set out to change or preserve Western culture and spirituality per se but in pursuing a clear purpose together over time, by taking on a particular organizational form and ethos, they ended up doing just that. This is not the place for a review of the rich, long, and varied life of monasticism as an organizational form, but this form suggests very important insights. Convents and monasteries practiced a form of organizational simplicity rooted in clarity, purpose, stability, wholeness, correction, fitting of roles, natural cycles of time, and many other dynamics that enriched both their common life and the lives of those around them. This kind of simplicity was a buttress against the various cultural temptations that permeated other organizations and structures around them. They failed and faltered as well, but there is a substantive core that persists even today. The dynamic of simplicity with fruitfulness is an elusive dynamic for organizations even today.

These reasons and many more are why simplicity is so very difficult and why it is so very rare. But some of the most powerful of signs are available to aid us in our plight—the beautiful, the elegant, the fruitful, the life-giving, the humble, the clarity of truth. There are guides and muses. Find them. Christian organizations may find that the theological rigour and discipline of missiology can highlight cultural bias, blind spots, structural assumptions, and out-of-context simplifications. Writers and thinkers from outside your regular circles can highlight what you don’t see. Failed institutions and their leaders provide warnings for the attentive—and failed institutions include those that “succeed” but lose their souls. Let their wisdom displace the mundane, ever-present mix of business as usual so that the difficult work of simplicity leads to seasons of unusual fruitfulness. Every particular organizational “recipe” yields a more or less adaptive, more or less resilient, more or less fragile group, and more or less human culture. Simplicity can guide us if we can avoid the pathologies of misguided minimalism and embrace an enriched vision of organizational thriving.

Milton Friesen
Milton Friesen

Milton Friesen was Program Director, Social Cities for Cardus from 2008 to 2020.


Download and Share Articles From The Comment Reader

An introduction to Public Theology for the Common Good

Want more of the same fresh, thought-provoking content delivered right to your inbox once a week?