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Simplistic versus simplified thinking

Jed Simms
November 28, 2011

The late Steve Jobs said that if you believed something was ‘simple’ you obviously did not understand it. The challenge, he said, was to thoroughly understand the complexity so that you can then simplify it.

His products are testaments to his success: highly sophisticated items of technology with one or two buttons only, for example. Apparently he and a small team spent their evenings for weeks and weeks simplifying the original iPod interface.

Yet in our time-pressured working environments, increasingly there is a desire for the simplistic.

A classic example of this is the approach of locking business case defined benefits into future operating budgets so as to ‘ensure their realisation’. This is simplistic thinking and illustrates the value-destroying properties of such simple thinking.

Locking benefits into future budgets:

  • Reduces the value of benefits as managers seek to minimise their future exposure by defining only enough benefits to get their business cases approved (not a good start).
  • Is irrelevant to the many managers who do not expect to be in the same position by the time the benefits are being expected (not a behaviour changing solution).
  • Fails to recognise reality, that during the course of the project and beyond the financial value of benefits can legitimately change significantly due to factors outside the project and governance teams’ control: for example, interest rate changes. Any increase or decrease in value is ignored by this simplistic approach.
  • Doesn’t even measure benefits realisation, only budget achievement. If other events have allowed the future budget to be met, the benefits from the project may not be realised at all as they are not needed to make budget or measured as benefits.

I could go on. But this example illustrates the dangers of simplistic thinking. Simplified thinking, however, is quite different.

If you want to measure benefits realisation you need to measure the inputs, the ‘stepping stones’ along the way to full benefits realisation. You need to measure the progressive delivery of the project outcomes, business outcomes, associated benefits—and then their value—while tracking any changes to the value drivers.

This ‘input’ approach to benefits realisation management and measurement is simple to set up, embeds benefits realisation into projects, and actually increases the value of benefits realised. Their value is tracked and measured independently of any other events or financial changes so you know what the project has and has not delivered.

When people say “just tell me what to do”, they are looking for simplistic answers. They don’t want to think, they just want to do. In these cases you can be assured that their outcomes will be simplistic, poor and compromised.

What people should ask for is “tell me how to think about this. How should I approach it? How do I define what I’m trying to achieve?” When you then provide them with simplified but highly effective solutions, you’re on your way to a simplified and highly successful result.

Jed Simms
Jed Simms is the founder and co-creator of Totally Optimized Projects, an internationally recognised strategy-based, business-driven approach to delivering projects. He specialises in project governance and control and value and benefits management. He is also the founding partner of consultancy Capability Management.
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