The world we live in seems to get more complicated every day, and since we tend to make things too complicated, we have a hard time moving forward.
We hear the call for more simplicity and the need to keep things simple all the time because things are getting more and more complicated. I myself am a very strong advocate of simplicity; it’s even a key component of my FAST Leadership approach.
However, we need to be very careful when we focus on simplicity so that we don’t actually increase complexity instead.
I say this because there is a big difference between simple and easy, and sometimes what appears to be the simplest solution can be very difficult and sometimes even impossible to deliver.
One of my favourite examples of this is the US Army.
In a bid to reduce costs and make things simpler, it was decided that they wanted to come up with a single camouflage uniform. This would mean that production costs would be lower because there would only be one uniform to produce.
It would be simpler for the soldiers because now they would only have one uniform to bring with them.
So on the surface, this looks like a great idea and one that’s based on simplicity.
There was only one problem: trying to create a single camouflage uniform that would work in desert, mountain, and jungle terrain is actually quite a difficult job.
The result was a universal camouflage pattern.
The goal of the uniform was that it would work everywhere.
Unfortunately, as most people with a sense for fashion will tell you and my wife could definitely tell you, it’s practically impossible to find one colour or pattern that will go with everything.
By deciding on one uniform instead of having different uniforms for the different terrains, they had now increased the difficulty and consequently made the task more complex as a result of their simplification.
The result was that instead of a uniform that was supposed to work everywhere, they ended up with a uniform that worked nowhere!
The project ended up having to be cancelled at a cost of around $5 billion, but not only that, it put the soldiers wearing it at risk as it was ineffective in keeping them hidden from the eyes of their enemies.
In this example, a much simpler approach would have been to create camouflage outfits for each of the different terrains.
It might not have appeared to be a cheaper option than a single outfit, but given that it’s extremely difficult to achieve, it’s much cheaper when you factor in the costs of failure, which in this case was $5 billion.
A one-size-fits all approach is not a bad approach to take when we look to simplify things and reduce costs, and there have been excellent results with that approach (just look at SouthWest Airlines), but it’s not a solution that works everywhere.
So when we look to simplify, we need to be sure that we haven’t come up with a solution that, on the surface, appears simpler, but underneath we have increased complexity to the point at which it’s either too expensive or impossible to create our simple solution.
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