by Bob Lewis

When Simplicity and Accuracy Collide, Simplicity Wins

Nov 16, 2010
IT Leadership

Before you get to act you have to get the job. That doesn't require being right, just being plausible and easily understood.

Before you get to act you have to get the job. That doesn’t require being right, just being plausible and easily understood.

ManagementSpeak: We’re just designing the template for success.

Translation: We think four boxes with some arrows is a successful design. The failure will be your responsibility.

This week’s anonymous contributor gives us a template for successful communication up the line.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan goes with Voltaire and Churchill — they make the rest of us despair of ever saying something both original and well, because inevitably, one of them already said it, only better.

I’m reading Daniel Patrick Moynihan: A Portrait in Letters of an American Visionary (edited by Steven Weisman, 2010). It’s curiously unsatisfactory; also immensely worthwhile.

It’s unsatisfactory in the way one of those all-hand-held roughly-cut documentaries is unsatisfactory: You see a lot of stuff happening, but even with a narrator to provide context it doesn’t really paint a picture.


It’s worthwhile because Moynihan’s letters provide a glimpse into the thinking of a remarkable brain, and an insider’s view of some of the most remarkable political events of the 20th century.

Also, endless brilliant turns of phrase. (Example: “I don’t think there’s any point in being Irish if you don’t know the world is going to break your heart eventually.” Second example: “Buildings such as the new Smithsonian and the new House Office Building are unmistakable signs of civilization in decline.”)

Moynihan had a knack for the seemingly fine, but actually fundamental distinctions that are the difference between informed discussion and pointless arguing. For example, as an advisor to President Johnson during the writing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 he pointed out that liberty (fair treatment) and equality (fair outcomes) are different, difficult to reconcile, and equally essential in American race relations.

Keeping these straight would still be useful in our national dialog about race … but for our purposes here it’s just an example.

The KJR take-home: This ability to build clarity out of fog by making and exploring distinctions that matter is essential to achieving important results, whether the challenge is leading a nation or an IT organization.

It is, however, as useless for being hired or promoted into an executive role as it is for achieving high office.

What gets you an executive title in too many organizations is, sad to say, the ability to oversimplify.

(I’ll leave it to you to decide whether the same is true for getting elected.)

(Not really … of course it is.)

Imagine a candidate for a CIO position. The CEO explains that IT has collapsed into a bunch of warring departments … a vicious level of siloization … and it’s killing the company. If he’s hired, what would he do about it?

The candidate describes all of the different structural factors that can cause this to happen, from metrics to compensation to geography to the physical workspace design to, sometimes, the unique personalities of the department heads.

He then displays further brilliance by discussing the process through which he’d analyze and reform each of these factors to create an environment that fosters collaboration and trust instead of compartmentalization and suspicion.

He explains, that is, what he’d actually do to address the situation while the interviewer’s eyes glaze over. His brilliance notwithstanding, he doesn’t get the job.

Here’s who might: The candidate who presents a solution that sounds simple and satisfying, so the interviewer (and, later, every audience) wants to believe it will work, even though it falls apart when subjected to even a minimal level of scrutiny.

That would be the candidate who, when presented with the siloization problem, explains that when this happens the solution is to fire the worst offender and his or her closest supporters. The siloization is a response to their shenanigans. Beyond that, their departure will establish for everyone else that continuing to act in silos is a career-limiting move.

Simple and satisfying. A great way to get the job. A poor way to do it, but a great way to get it.

Then there’s you. As a certified KJR-type IT leader, you’ll use simplicity, but a simplicity that clarifies the underlying complexity instead of ignoring it. You explain that to fix silos you need to put two key factors in place: Alignment and collaboration.

Alignment means establishing a common purpose and promoting it persuasively so your IT leadership team, and a critical mass of employees, buys into it.

Collaboration, you continue, means creating cross-functional projects throughout IT … but especially within the leadership team … where members of the currently warring silos have to work together to get the job done.

Alignment and collaboration — that’s what will get the job done.

And it will. Making them happen … fixing any tough problem … takes engineering, not wishful thinking. That’s okay. Great engineering starts with a few clear, simple ideas.

The necessary complexity comes later, after you’ve made the sale.

Bob Lewis is author of Keep the Joint Running: A Manifesto for 21st Century Information Technology, Bare Bones Change Management: What you shouldn’t not do, and six other books on business, information technology, and where they intersect. He is president of IT Catalysts, Inc., a consultancy specializing in these and related areas.