I spend a lot of time talking about falling back and using simple project management tools when projects are not going as well as expected (for example, see Knowing Your Project Management Average Is Powerful). Most management, project or otherwise, I always considered pretty simple. Simple doesn’t mean easy to do. Often, it is very hard but to do.
While simple, these simple things are also not always obvious. I don’t know how many times we finally got projects or departments fixed and working well, only to be told “That was the obvious thing to do — what was so great about doing it?” Yet these things were not so obvious when everything was still falling apart!
I consider myself a fairly creative guy. While my domain is information technology, my creativity works just as well in many areas. I have a friend who does contract carpentry and home repair work. While my skill at doing these things is weak, I’m pretty good at figuring out what needs to be done. Or, so I thought.
I would ask “Joe” to come by and fix something complex that needed fixing. I had looked at the problem for weeks or months and decided I just needed someone with the right skills to come fix it. I’d show him the problem and while he was looking it over, I’d go off and do something else. I’d come back, expecting to see walls torn up, stairs disassembled, doors removed.
Instead, he would be finishing up, usually idly fixing something else he spotted. I would be dumbfounded. How could he be done? It was going to be a huge job. I looked at what he did. It was simple and obvious. It was done. About the third time he did this to me, I finally got it. His brilliance was in seeing the direct solution, where someone not as skilled and experienced only saw complexity and a complex solution.
This situation reminded me of a passage in The Invisible Gorilla, And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons:
The most dangerous kind of overconfidence in our abilities comes not when we are already skilled at a task but when we are still unskilled.
I see this all the time in the information technology and software business. Managers trying to fix “complex” problems with complex solutions — usually due to a lack of experience in running successful projects. Instead, I’ve found most complex appearing problems are fixed by fairly simple solutions (e.g., getting a good schedule estimate minimizes many classic project challenges). What most people miss is that when we have a fairly large collection of “simple” activities they can produce rather complex results. This also means it can be difficult to tweak these simple activities, when trying to improve a process or fix a problem, such that they still hang together into a comprehensive solution.
Occam’s Razor is the notion in science that the simpler explanation or solution is always the more desirable approach. While I’m a strong advocate of never doing anything unless there are multiple good reasons to do it, those things that we do are often quiet simple. What is not so obvious is what to do. In our search for a solution we get seduced by complex tools and technologies but frequently the simpler approach will work best. In the software development field I’ve often heard the Scrum software development evangelists suggest first doing Scrum management manually without any significant tools or automation support. To me this is brilliant and represents profound insight into the challenge of making any kind of change and of being successful by keeping it simple.
One of the characteristics of a successful organization, I’ve observed, is that it consists of a fairly large collection of simple activities that complement each other and works well together. Finding simple, but often hard and not always obvious, solutions to challenges is key to keeping the project or organization successfully moving forward. Look hard for the simple solutions — hidden by complex appearing challenges.
Have you ever solved complex project management problems using a simple solution?