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Published: April 1, 2000

 
 

Cheese is Simple; Management is Hard

This is clearly the message behind Bill Jensen's Simplicity. The book's "Dirty Little Secret, Hidden in Plain Sight: Work complexity is the result of our worst intellectual habits. We're not structuring goals, communication, information, and knowledge so that a diverse workforce can use them to make decisions," writes Mr. Jensen. Indeed, the irony is that many managers now pass along unclarified clutter to their subordinates and pass that off as "empowerment." Disgraceful. Mr. Jensen's book calls them on it.

Foolishly positioned as an antidote to information overload, the book is, in fact, a useful meditation on the trade-offs associated with crafting communications that scale in accessibility and simplicity. No, this isn't about public relations or better documentation. This is a book that looks at the 80/20 rules of simplicity: Where does a 20 percent improvement in simplicity generate an 80 percent improvement in results? Where does the 20 percent of complexity create 80 percent of the confusion? These are useful lenses through which to view managerial effectiveness. While many of Mr. Jensen's suggestions err on the side of being simplistic, he does bring a welcome rigor to the challenge of balancing simplicity with comprehensiveness. This is a game of trade-offs: While simplicity doesn't come cheaply, the coordination costs of complexity have their own infernal economics, too.

There is, of course, a global battlefield where these trade-offs and challenges are fought every day. That battlefield is the World Wide Web. Go to any well-traveled and successful site — an Amazon.com, an eBay, a Yahoo and it becomes immediately clear that these are places where simplicity, clarity, and comprehensiveness are in constant tension. However, it's equally apparent that these sites can't afford to be too complex, because it's so simple to click away. The ease of exit has forced site designers to employ compelling clarity. One of the reasons many people claim they prefer shopping online to going to the mall is that it is easier and simpler. Today's Web sites are designed with the harsh market reality that complexity alienates where simplicity invites.

Indeed, we are seeing corporate intranets mimic the design and functionality of successful e-tailers and Web portals. Why? Because they are so familiar? No, because they are easy-to-use and accessible. Intriguingly, the rise of commerce, content, and community interfaces on the Web is having a huge impact on the design of those interfaces within the firm. The marketplace understands simplicity better than most managements do; consequently, enterprises worldwide are importing the simplicity ethic to their own internal networks.

The double-edged sword of technological innovation is that it is even more capable of complicating life than simplifying it. However, as books like Cheese and Simplicity affirm, people in organizations are rebelling against the notion that complexity is an inherent price you pay for innovation. On the contrary, if you are prepared to learn — and act upon — what constitutes appropriate simplicity in your organization, you can end up having the best of both worlds.

Reprint No. 00210


Simple Resources
Works mentioned in this review
Kenneth H. Blanchard and Spencer Johnson, The One Minute Manager
(William Morrow & Company, 1982), 112 pages, $20.00
Bill Jensen, Simplicity: The New Competitive Advantage in a World of More, Better, Faster (Perseus Books, 2000), 221 pages, $25.00, bill@simplerwork.com
Spencer Johnson, Who Moved My Cheese?: An Amazing Way to Deal With Change in Your Work and in Your Life (Putnam Publishing Group, 1998), 94 pages, $19.95, www.SpencerJohnson.com

 

 


Authors
Michael Schrage, schrage@media.mit.edu
Michael Schrage is codirector of the MIT Media Lab’s e-Markets Initiative and a senior adviser to the MIT Security Studies program. Mr Schrage is the author of Serious Play: How the World’s Best Companies Simulate to Innovate (Harvard Business School Press, 1999).
 
 
 
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