The Hard Thing About Simplicity

You know the conversation. To achieve X, we need to do Y. But to do Y, we have to do A, B, and maybe C. And if we do C, then we have to do K. But M also should be included and if M’s included, then O should be too. But that also means J should contribute to S which will be an input to Z, and then go back to Y. Once Y is done, it’s not really done because we’re actually trying to get Z done.

Follow that? Me either.

However, this was basically that status I received from another project manager whose effort, which most of the work was being done by a vendor. I was getting little bits of information as this person bounced from one topic to the next, then back again. I was lost. When they finally asked me if I followed, I said “This sounds complex as hell. Does you team understand this?” The answer was, “Pretty sure.” So, I asked one of the team members, to which they responded no. I asked another. Not really. Because I know the vendor, asked them. They knew their part, but didn’t have a clear view of the big picture.

Does this sound familiar? Yeah, a recipe for disaster!

Confucius says that life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated. Humans are great at making things complex. Sometimes it’s to show we know a lot of information. Or we’re smart. Or we’re the “go to” person. Or maybe to mask that we don’t know something. Ever hear a marketing pitch with all sorts of stats and complexity we don’t understand and think, “Huh, these folks have their shit together.”? Whatever it is, we deal with it everyday.

As a project professional, you’re getting lots of information thrown at you. Updates and issues from the team. Stakeholder requests. You’re brought into random meetings and then asked to handle something. Emails. Instant messages. Texts. Phone calls. It’s never ending! And now, you have to take all this information and be able to communicate it clearly, and simply.

Here’s the thing about simplicity; IT’S DAMN HARD!! Think about it. We’re bombarded with information and stats. If we regurgitate that information to others, we may feel we come across as smart. But ultimately, we’re just repeating what they can probably already get. It becomes hard when you take all these bits of information, aggregate, and then communicate in a clear, concise manner that’s easy for others to understand.

The Search for Simplicity — Ian Symmonds & Associates

Let’s say you need to make a major decision on your project. You’re gathering information so you can have a discussion with the sponsor and any other necessary stakeholders. When the meeting starts, you throw out all types of bits of information and keep saying “And another thing…” repeatedly. The decision makers look confused. They pepper you with questions to which you respond “Uh, well, um…” Looks like you don’t have your shit together and either no decision is made, or worse, the wrong one.

Contrast that with starting out telling a story of what happened, what’s been done, and summarizing all the bits of information you’ve received. It’s not complex and everyone in the room understands what has lead up to this point. A few clarifying questions are asked as you lay out some easy to understand options and impacts. The decision is made and everyone moves on.

Which meeting do you think is better? The one where you look like you don’t know what you’re talking about or the one everyone understands and can make a decision? Which do you think happens more frequently?

Making the complex, simple is hard. Damn hard. It takes time. It takes concentration. It takes the ability to understand all those bits of information and turn them into a story. But, it’s also well worth it. Here’s to simplifying the complex!

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