Less Is More: What Organizations Can Learn From Mies Van Der Rohe
‘Less is more…’ This phrase, not invented by, but often used by Mies van der Rohe, represents the ideal of creating something so beautiful it cannot be further reduced. Even if you are not a student of architecture, this idea can be understood by looking at the so-called German Pavilion he designed for the 1929 Barcelona International Exposition. Not a single wall of the structure can be removed.
State of the art
In the field of architecture, less is more is seen as ‘state of the art’. The principle describes design where reduction represents a higher level of taste.
In organization design, a discipline still referred to as management (although the expression management comes from the French word manage, meaning ‘dresser of horses’), the paradigm seems to be the opposite. Let’s make things as complicated as possible so that, ultimately, nobody understands what it’s about.
Complex & Complicated
Last week, I had the honor of being on a panel at the Rendanheyi Boundaryless Network, an initiative of Haier. The title of the discussion was: ‘How can Microenterprises avoid falling prey to the bureaucratic dilemma?’
While preparing my presentation, I thought of the less is more notion. Why? Because in organization science or management we seem inherently fond of making things complicated.
In architecture, less is more is seen as state of the art. In management the paradigm seems to be the opposite. Let’s make things as complicated as possible so that, ultimately, nobody understands what it’s about.
I wonder why? Is it the mindset? Or is it inevitable—a natural phenomenon that organizations become more complicated when they grow, be they companies, teams or states? Is it easier to add to something rather than remove it?
Were things less complex in the past? Did we have fewer laws then? Does society operate more efficiently now than it did previously? Are our schools or health systems better now than when there were fewer rules?
It appears to be an unspoken rule that things become more complex as corporations expand, with teams becoming bigger and bigger, until nobody knows who is doing what anymore, and who is responsible.
Is this ever-growing complexity Frederick Taylor's fault? Is it caused by managers or consultants, who justify their existence by explaining in ever more complex cycles how other people have to do their work?
Complex vs. Complicated
Does it make us more intelligent when we make things not only complex but also more complicated? And does being able to explain the difference between them make you appear even more intelligent? If you google the two, you find “Complex refers to detail, while complicated refers to difficulty”.
Complexity is more about how many layers or elements a system has. Complicated seems to be more about how difficult something is. Or to put it in words everybody understands: Does it make us look more intelligent when we complicate things?
Back to less
I like to think we can change the paradigm in organization science back to less is more. Let us recapture the beauty of simplicity and reward it as such. Let us realize it is very easy to make things complicated or more complex, and that the real challenge is to make or keep things simple.
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You could accuse me of complicating here :) but ... I think the answer to "why" is partially (largely?) found in James Scott's notion of legibility (see his book Seeing Like a State.) As you gain distance from the messy and real work that is creating value, there is a desire to understand (or control) and therefore "simplify" what is happening, in an effort to make the world legible at a greater scope. In truth, I think these simplifications add artifacts, rules, and procedures -- dead weight -- while the actual real-world effort cannot generally be simplified at all. It is what it is. Our attempts to make it all look the same so we can understand it usually just add a lot of complication! Reducing scope seems to be the solution in general.
I 100% agree with the intention of this post and this blog in general. But it didn’t speak to why this happens.
I’ve worked in a few larger companies and I’m quite sure no one makes a job or system more complicated for just because they feel like it.
Usually something goes wrong, maybe a new hire makes a mistake, or someone overly ambitious takes advantage of the system for their advancement, and then someone up above notices and asks the perfectly reasonable question of ‘how do we prevent this?’ And through a series of good intentions a bunch of rules get piled on over time.
The same goes for large management structures. Most managers want to be useful to their teams and know enough about them to represent them around the company. But once there are too many teams under them, helping them all out and understanding what’s really happening becomes impossible. So they break the work out into smaller more manageable chunks by adding a layer of managers to do it.
It’s all quite innocent and considered “best practice” for the most part.
The problem is, of course, like the post suggests: when you abstract out the work through so many layers and add complexity through many rules, it becomes impossible to actually know what’s going on. So much crucial nuance gets lost in the reporting up process that senior managers can’t see the significance of what’s happening below them, and they can’t effectively do their jobs in either representing or directing their teams.
Another thought-provoking piece from my favourite rebels.
Vlad identifies one route to this additional complexity: the response to deviation. Some of my work is in aviation safety, where people and organisations often apply additional rules, new ‘barriers’, and so forth after an undesirable event. (May I signpost safetydifferently.com, where you can learn about alternative paths?).
In aviation, and many other spheres, there’s another cause: Regulation. We all accept far too much of the wrong kinds of regulation, by the wrong kind of regulators (and here I’m encompassing the organisations right down to the individual level of the people who take a career in regulation, often because they lack talent to make headway anywhere else) and that’s one reason why we still see some classes of failures. A more pressing concern is the absence of the right kind of regulation by the right kind of regulators, giving rise to tragedies such as the 737MAX saga and the Emiliano Sala crash.
It’s not just regulation that adds complexity, but managers’ reactions to it. Those who interact with regulators need to rage against that machine.
Meanwhile, away from the specialists, those who believe regulation is doing them good (the voting public) should question that regulation when it enables these bad outcomes and rage too. And everyone involved in regulation needs to take a long hard look at the real world and start engaging with progress or riding out of Dodge.
I’d be interested in a CR piece about how some of the flagship Rebel organisations in regulated industries (healthcare, banking) deal with this...
I see a lot of commentary speaking against abstractions as they add complication to our work.
I would posit that we need abstractions, it is how we make sense of the world around us.
I think the problem is that industrial styled organizations abstract the wrong thing.
We construct organizational out of stacked adjacent boxes, abstracting our separate specialization that work independently of each other.
Instead abstract the demand, what is the value and who can do it, and use this abstraction to encourage people to form teams around that demand.
Supporting people to form containers where self-organization can take place is the future of OD, so we get structure that as simple as it can be, but no simpler.
I agree that we use abstractions to survive, in general. But our desire to understand and make sense of the world also drives us to invent a number of dis-economy-of-scale abstractions, causing problems. That doesn't mean (and I did not intend to imply) that all abstractions are inherently bad/problematic. Better ones, are better, and simple-enough-to-not-need-abstractions, if it exists, may be best. (Hi-fidelity reality for the win! Let me know if you find it :) I think the key point is the intention of the abstraction - is it designed to manage and control? Then it is likely unnecessary. Is it created as an enabling part of value creation? Have at it!
Also abstractions are much likely to be focused on value creation than control if the people doing the work create the abstraction.
We don’t want management creating these abstractions for their workers.
As an example when teams choose to visualize their flow of work, then they get to own the design, operation, and improvement of that visualization. They they are far more likely to come up with a useful communication mechanism not only for that team, but for outside stakeholders as well.
When a process is imposed, it loses all meaning for knowledge workers, and becomes an artifact for dysfunctional control.
How are work outcomes affected by the treatment of those who do it? I have been exploring this question for ~50 years. In that time, one comment stuck with me more than any other. It was made in 1998 when I interviewed a group of men in Indianapolis who had redesigned most of the US city’s waste collection and disposal operations. “We are no longer expected to park our brains at the door when we come to work.”
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