Four highlights from “Getting Simple Right” by Milton Friesen (Comment Magazine)
Loved reading this essay in Comment magazine. You should read it too. It will take about 30 minutes. Link.
There are many ways for simplicity to become a harmful form of minimalism. Minimalism, characterized as the efficiency- and control-driven expression of modernity, means getting rid of overlap, redundancy, ambiguity, uncertainty, and complications. The impulse is to pare things away until all superfluous elements have been removed. But if you don’t know what is vital and you reduce the living complexity of something, it becomes more fragile. A fragile entity is vulnerable to unexpected disruptions. It turns out to be very difficult to simplify a living thing without doing great harm to what makes it alive. There are strong parallels with human organizations.
On bureaucracy as a mindset:
Size is commonly invoked to explain bureaucracy—that you need to be big to be bureaucratic. Think of a government, or a major corporation. But these dynamics are not about size, per se. If it were, only the big players would face the risk fragility through the wrong kind of simplification. The challenge is that you don’t need to be big to be fragile. A group of any size can—and often does—fall prey to this same way of thinking. More than a hundred years ago Max Weber, in Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology, argued that while we may claim that our particular organization, as a social structure, is unique or different because it is a charity or a school, such organizations are actually not that different. He claims that whether we have in mind a church, military unit, or business organization, it is the spirit of the impersonal and the efficient, the bureaucratic, that may pervade them all. Their functional ideal, said Weber, is that they operate “without hatred or passion and hence without affection or enthusiasm.” Bureaucracy is an attitude, a spirit, a sensibility. It was this spirit that Hannah Arendt flagged in her controversial evaluation of Eichmann as a banal civil servant enacting horrors from a bureaucrat’s desk.
On mission statements:
Amid the complexity and challenge of organizational leadership, it is easy to make the fatal mistake of thinking noble statements of mission, purpose, or vision are sufficient to protect you from harmful constraints or peer pressure—that the words somehow are what give you focus. The most natural and powerful state for an organization is realized when your actions and your statements are so integrated that even if it isn’t written down, you and those you lead just live it out. This is, of course, both rare and difficult in our all-to-normal times. Far more common are managed simplifications that use formal methods as a means of selling their legitimacy. Such compromises will inevitably lead to organizational erosion over time. Success can cover that up for a good while, but the mask won’t bear weight for long. Simplicity is not saying your mission statement louder or longer or getting it written in granite on your building. Who cares. If you need a bumper sticker to tell people how great you are, you probably aren’t.
On Monasticism and fruitfulness:
Bosch argues that the monks did not set out to change or preserve Western culture and spirituality per se but in pursuing a clear purpose together over time, by taking on a particular organizational form and ethos, they ended up doing just that. This is not the place for a review of the rich, long, and varied life of monasticism as an organizational form, but this form suggests very important insights. Convents and monasteries practiced a form of organizational simplicity rooted in clarity, purpose, stability, wholeness, correction, fitting of roles, natural cycles of time, and many other dynamics that enriched both their common life and the lives of those around them. This kind of simplicity was a buttress against the various cultural temptations that permeated other organizations and structures around them. They failed and faltered as well, but there is a substantive core that persists even today. The dynamic of simplicity with fruitfulness is an elusive dynamic for organizations even today.