“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” So wrote Albert Einstein – stating the obvious. Well, obvious to some folk but not those who try to make everything complicated. With any problem, one of the ways to tackle it is to simplify it – strip away the distractions and get down to what is really at the core. Concentrate on the detail that matters and set aside the detail that doesn’t. Simple! Well, almost…

To take this approach, one essential skill, or competence, is know what is actually important, else you risk stripping out something that should stay, ignoring something that actually is important. Sometimes it’s easy, though often it’s not as easy as we’d like it to be. It’s not so bad when the problem can be quickly seen to be resolved (or not); instant feedback sorts out many wrong turns. If your car stops, you check the obvious and easiest things first – checking you haven’t run out of fuel being a good start. If your PC isn’t doing what it should (or you think it should) one of the first remedial actions is to reboot it – that resolves a host of memory conflicts. If that doesn’t work, you start to investigate deeper (or phone a friend).

However, we don’t always get instant feedback, especially when the problem is to design a management system or process. We don’t know if we’ve got it right until much later, if at all. There might not be a right at all, just one that isn’t as wrong as the rest. Keeping it simple is a good rule but never oversimplify. When folk quote Einstein as the source of their reductionist ideas they sometimes forget the full quote and oversimplify. Don’t ignore possible consequences of the options. Understanding the system is essential in these cases – concentrate on the task but ignore the others at your peril.

Finally, on overlooking the obvious, there is a story about a computer helpdesk operator who received a call from a user complaining his screen had suddenly gone blank. The operator patiently listened to the users account of what he had been doing up to the point of failure, checking manuals and guides for ideas. Nothing there so he gets the user to try a reboot, patiently explaining keyboard sequences. No luck, so the next step is to ask him to check the lead between the PC and screen hasn’t come out – will do, replies the user, but I’ll need to go and get a torch first because all the building lights have gone out!

(Posted as a blog 22nd June 2015)