“Workflow” reviewed part IV – Elegance marks organizational maturity

Preface – Poetry out of left field

When I started reading Kourosh’ chapter on aesthetics, about one sixth of the way into his epic work “Workflow: Beyond productivity”, I was not convinced I would find anything relevant from an larger organization’s point of view. After all, what is there in larger scale organizations that requires aesthetics? Isn’t a large organization all about efficiency?

As a unique user, I can see the appeal of actively integrating aspects such as elegance as an objective in your organizational system. After all, you need to look at it or work with it all day long. It is the core of your functioning. But I failed to understand how this bridged to a larger structure.

However, then I read this:

Elegance is beauty and strength,
Often simple in nature,
Highlighted in a relief of invisibility.

Elegance marks organizational maturity.

All of a sudden, Kourosh uses poetry on us. Wow. That one came out of left field.

Realizing the relevance

Now, read that last sentence: “Elegance marks organizational maturity.” When I think of elegance, I actually have this idea of an older Southern Belle, distinguished and distinct. Or of a dancer, moving gracefully over a stage, seemingly weightless. The effort of any action is perfectly in balance with the intended objective. Or, as David Allen states: “Mind like Water.”

And I get this tantalizing image of a process, almost frictionless, almost obiquitous, yet present enough to matter. And that is exactly what Kourosh evoques with these four simple lines. It works for both a very personal process and for an organization-wide structure. Or at least it should.

The relevance of elegance

Can we consider the presence of elegance as an indicator of organizational maturity in a larger organizational structure? I believe the answer is not a resounding yes, but rather a subtle “more and more.” I’ll explain in a minute, but first I need to provide some background as to where I am coming from on this. So bear with me for an instant.

Administrative simplification

I’ve spent a considerable amount of my professional life working on the simplification of the administrative burden of governmental regulations. If you care to know more, please see the about me page on this blog.

Now, the objective of burden reduction is simple but the challenge is gargantuan. Imagine trying to assist, regulation by regulation, public administrations in making the regulations they impose on people and organizations simpler and easier to comply with. There are a couple of challenges:

  • First, these rules and regulations need to be developed within a wider, already established regulatory structure that is anything but simple;
  • Second, quite often the people writing the regulations and legislations are not the users of the regulation themselves;
  • And finally, the person writing the regulation often has no true appreciation for the entire fabric of complexity imposed. Usually, a regulation does not stand alone, and the user has to ensure compliance with them all.

So what my team did was to develop and use methodes to measure time and costs incurred by the user in complying with a set of regulations and looking for potential for improvements.

Now, the measurement techniques we developed for public sector applies to businesses and organizations as well. If any of you can read Dutch or French, a nice journalist interviewed me a couple of years ago on this very topic. The article can be found here.

The opportunity cost of internal complexity

Organizational structures are complex to begin with and if we develop processes and procedural requirements without taking in account that these will interact with what exists already, we increase the burden for the organization as a whole. We will increase the time spent in complying with the internal procedures. This is not only a real cost in terms of time of personnel to be paid, but quite often an opportunity cost as well, as that time could have been better spent working on the core business.

Another problem is that the further the process or rule developer stand from the day-to-day compliance reality, the less likely he or she is to recognize the inherent complexity and optimize it for the user.

But what does this have to do with elegance?

Let’s examine Kourosh’s statement yet again … especially the final phrase:

Elegance marks organizational maturity

In order to be elegant as an organization, you need to have reduced the internal complexity to a point where it does no longer hinder organizational performance. In other words, the organizational support processes that assist you in realizing the goal of the organization need to be as frictionless as possible.

How do you achieve that? By going through the complexity that is inherent in a start-up and maturing phase, where things get weird once the organization has grown to a certain size. You need to go through the complexity and out the other side, towards simplicity.

The interesting thing about this is that it is – in my experience – unlikely that you will achieve simplicity from the outset. Rather, simplicity, and the resulting elegance, are a result from having suffered through complexity.

More and more elegance, but mainly in the mid-sized bracket

Often, organizations on a growth path get lost in complexity. They start bleeding and they may actually die, never making it out the door. They failed to simplify. They never looked at their own functioning as a user and were therefore not close enough to make it work. Others stagnate at a dangerous event horizon where complexity does not yet drag the organization down. However, additional burdens imposed on the organization may drag them beyond that precipice. Some make it to the other side, optimizing their activities to make sure that the organizational structure does not impede the achievement of the organizational objectives. These are organizations where the effort put into development and maintenance of the organizational structure is measured. These are real elegant organizations. I see more and more of them out there. Quite often, they are not the large multinationals, although there is no reason they shouldn’t be. To date, these are the mid sized, more agile structures that manage to find a balance between what they are about and what they need to achieve that.