Less eats more for breakfast

I design and build systems. Sometimes those systems are made of technology and sometimes they’re made of people. I’ve learned, and keep learning, that doing less is invariably greater than doing more.

The phrase keeps coming to me: “it’s an engineering solution to a design problem”. I’m giving a name to our very human tendency to come up with more layers of complication to solve a problem, when a better answer is likely to take away something we’re already doing. We, more often than is comfortable, are the architect of our own problem.

Clutter

Complicatedness kills. It creeps up on you, it hides under your bed, it seeps in through the cracks in your attention and energy, and it throws a party all over your front lawn when there’s uncertainty and unwillingness to make choices.

Relentless as a quietly rising tide, it will flow around you and cut you off from the land.

Kipple abhors a vacuum. Don’t go looking for it, it’s already breeding in the corners of your world. It’ll grow to ride heavy on your back, like a monkey that won’t climb down, and then it’ll invite its friends. And yet we love it. Oh how we love clutter. One more thing to organise the other things. We don’t clear out and clean up. Life sticks to us like burs.

Solving problems with problems

When the IT industry was straining under the weight of our large, complicated systems we built to solve business problems, we invented Microservices. These were a solution to partition up that complicatedness into smaller Jigsaw pieces.

The problem was, those Jigsaw pieces soon became a tangled mass, so we invented Containers. Neat, stackable little boxes to keep our jigsaw pieces in. But before we knew it, we had hundreds and thousands of little boxes. We couldn’t really see what was inside them any more and our stacks kept falling over.

So we invented ships and cranes and fleets and admirals and emperors to organise them all and to rule over this stack of problem-solutions we created.

Each of these layers of solution is fascinating, and time consuming, and expensive to implement. Plus, tomorrow there’ll be another new technology to spend the next couple of years of our organisational lives working on for the promise of a promised land.

What was the question again?

The real problem we had in the first place was complicatedness. Ironic. It seems the cure is worse than the disease. In the words of Stan Laurel, “Well, that’s another fine mess you gotten me into”.

Solving a problem with the thinking that created it rarely works. Practising your piano skills until you become exquisitely talented at violin doesn’t make a lot of sense. Engineering one more layer of stuff doesn’t solve the problem of too many layers of stuff.

Designing a problem out of the picture is hard, compared to the relative ease of engineering in more problems.

I feel safe in teasing techies because I am one. I empathise with our fascination with complexity. Intricate, interesting, fantastical wind up toys. Delightful mechanical creations, art made from science. It’s amazing what you can build when you’re blessed with a watchmaker’s toolkit.

A colleague told me a story of a room full of engineers, tasked with designing a door for bathrooms in public buildings. Every shade of automatic-opening, no-touch, camera-operated, AI-and-blockchain-infused cleverness was discussed, until the quiet, experienced engineer at the back said “why don’t we just let people kick the door open?”. Look, no hands, no germs.

Ironically, it’s still not the simplest answer. When I walk into the bathroom in an airport, shopping centre or a service station, there is, quite simply, no door. A design solution.

The life-changing magic of simplicity

But ask not for whom the complicatedness bell tolls. Knowing you have a problem is the first step to your first steps. I recognise this in myself and I invite you to notice it in yourself too. The more you simplify, the more sensitive you become to your complexity.

The more you know, the more you know you don’t know.

If you’ve had the pleasure of reading or watching the work of Marie Kondo, you’ll empathise with how we all gently sink under our waters of clutter and complication. If you haven’t experienced the quiet force of nature that is Marie Kondo, I’d recommend you take a look. If only to have your eyes gently but firmly opened to your own mess.

In her Netflix series, she’s invited into the homes of ordinary people who are drowning in the chaos and clutter of ordinary life: clothes, dishes, energetic children, busy lives, unable to get on a level with their home, much less enjoy the space. Without so much as a flicker of judgement or condescension, Marie Kondo invites the frazzled family to simplify their home.

Trying harder to engineer a more peaceful space hasn’t worked, but a simpler design — less — does the trick.

I’ve seen the process first-hand and tried a little myself. It’s remarkably powerful, and the sense of release and clarity that careful pruning and conscious choices bring to a space make it well worth the effort.

As in life, so in tech

And so this is how I approach my work. Being invited to be part of the life of an organisation for a time, I seek first to understand, then to ask questions about things that seem complicated.

Sometimes I’m reviving dormant elephants in the room, sometimes I’m amplifying voices already advocating for less and sometimes I’m asking people whether they really want to keep on engineering another layer.

I hope that, at my best, it’s an invitation to question defaults and that my words come with the kind of genuine care and consideration that disarms fear and makes it clear this is about a common good.

As in tech, so in teams

Sometimes the question is less about the technology system and more about the people system. These are some of my favourite questions, but the answers don’t always look like what you’d expect. You’re unlikely to find me overtly driving a team forward, perhaps engineering urgency or motivation, “putting the pedal to the metal”.

Sometimes I have my head under the bonnet, quietly looking for friction.

The kind of stuff where, if you do too much driving, something or someone will break down. Sometimes the handbrake is on, that’s usually pretty clear. Other times it takes a while, listening to squeaks and rattles before you see where something’s stuck. Then it’s about easing it out. Things just get smoother.

It doesn’t always look glamorous, it’s often not headline-grabbing work. More often than not it’s a design solution to an engineering problem. Sometimes it’s about setting things up to not go wrong, more than it is about making them go right. Which brings me to another of my favourite phrases: “a crowd will applaud a firework, but not a sunrise”. We need regular sunrises.

If I could give only one piece of advice, it would be this: do less — and keep doing that. The power of even a little simplicity can be transformative.

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