The Art of Simplification

Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add but when there is nothing left to take away. This standard, crafted by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, suggests some potential for improvement in public administration and large corporations. But what is the reason that the rules are becoming more and more and the processes more and more complicated? Perhaps, in the end, it is simply due to our tendency to seek solutions by adding rather than solving the problem by omitting, as demonstrated in recent research.

What hap­pens to admin­is­tra­tion when work becomes less? This was the ques­tion posed by Cyril North­cote Parkin­son. His sub­ject of the inves­ti­ga­tion was the British Colo­nial Office, which was respon­si­ble for the admin­is­tra­tion of the British colonies from 1854 to 1966. Parkin­son found that the num­ber of civ­il ser­vants grew steadi­ly regard­less of the work avail­able. The Colo­nial Office had the most civ­il ser­vants in 1966 when it was inte­grat­ed into the For­eign Office for lack of colonies to admin­is­ter. It was a busy orga­ni­za­tion — most­ly with itself.

Work expands so as to fill the time avail­able for its completion.

Cyril North­cote Parkin­son in (Parkin­son, 1955)

Sim­pli­fi­ca­tion is an art that admin­is­tra­tions seem to mas­ter less well. Less is more. This was the mot­to used by Bauhaus archi­tect Lud­wig Mies van der Rohe to describe this art. His col­league Richard Buck­min­ster Fuller took a sim­i­lar view, although he was refer­ring more to the func­tion­al aspects: “Doing more with less.”

Less is more — and requires more work. Not only in archi­tec­ture but also, the French math­e­mati­cian Blaise Pas­cal apol­o­gized in 1656 for his lin­guis­tic excess­es: “I have made the present let­ter so long for no oth­er rea­son than because I have not had time to make it short­er.” And his Hun­gar­i­an col­league Paul Erdős believed in “The Book,” a book of God, which he thought con­tained all the ele­gant and per­fect math­e­mat­i­cal proofs.

So now, if these great thinkers and artists agree that sim­plic­i­ty is the high­est form of per­fec­tion, as Leonar­do da Vin­ci so apt­ly put it, how does this can­cer­ous growth of pub­lic admin­is­tra­tions like the British Colo­nial Office and their exces­sive bureau­cra­cy come about? This phe­nom­e­non can be observed in almost iden­ti­cal fash­ion in large cor­po­ra­tions that have grown over decades; it reg­u­lar­ly pro­duces fruit­less projects for de-bureaucratization.

Indeed, busy knowl­edge work­ers feel like Blaise Pas­cal and don’t have time to stream­line the process­es. In addi­tion, there is an inter­est­ing soci­o­log­i­cal dynam­ic that Cyril North­cote Parkin­son describes as the cause of the phe­nom­e­non he observed. On the one hand, every employ­ee tries to increase the num­ber of his sub­or­di­nates, not the num­ber of his rivals. And on the oth­er hand, employ­ees cre­ate work for each oth­er. This is still an apt sum­ma­ry of the rea­sons for mas­sive fric­tion in large organizations.

But per­haps the cause lies much more pro­found in our human psy­che and ten­den­cies, as (Meyvis & Yoon, 2021) sum­ma­rize the research of (Adams et al., 2021): “A series of prob­lem-solv­ing exper­i­ments reveal that peo­ple are more like­ly to con­sid­er solu­tions that add fea­tures than solu­tions that remove them, even when remov­ing fea­tures is more efficient.”

In one exper­i­ment, par­tic­i­pants had the task of improv­ing the sta­bil­i­ty of a Lego struc­ture so that the roof would end up sup­port­ing a brick. Par­tic­i­pants would receive a dol­lar if suc­cess­ful, but each addi­tion­al Lego brick cost 10 cents. Since the roof ini­tial­ly rest­ed on a sin­gle brick far off the cen­ter of grav­i­ty, most par­tic­i­pants added more bricks to sta­bi­lize the roof. How­ev­er, it would have been much eas­i­er and more prof­itable to remove the sin­gle stone at the roof’s edge and then place the roof sta­bly on top of the rest of the structure.

Source: (Meyvis & Yoon, 2021)

Sim­pli­fy­ing does­n’t seem to suit us. We’d instead make more of the same, and if that does­n’t help, we increase our efforts even more. This uni­ver­sal human ten­den­cy com­bined with Ger­man thor­ough­ness per­haps explains the exten­sive Ger­man tax leg­is­la­tion and fine­ly chis­eled trav­el expense guide­lines in DAX corporations.

References

Parkin­son, C. N. (1955). Parkin­son’s Law. The Econ­o­mist177(5856), 635 – 637.

Meyvis, T., & Yoon, H. (2021). Adding is favoured over sub­tract­ing in prob­lem solv­ing. Nature592(7853), 189 – 190. https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-021 – 00592‑0 (PDF)

Adams, G. S., Con­verse, B. A., Hales, A. H., & Klotz, L. E. (2021). Peo­ple sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly over­look sub­trac­tive changes. Nature592(7853), 258 – 261. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-021 – 03380‑y

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One Comment

Pablo Cabrera 28. November 2022 Reply

Very sim­ple and short les­son about the cor­po­rate resis­tance to sim­pli­fi­ca­tion. It´s a day to day fight !!

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