Simplicity for Longevity

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Over the last few days, I have been thinking much about the founding documents of the United States, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. There actually is another document that most people forget about (since it is not binding today in any way), the Articles of Confederation. This was the treaty that bound together the very independent "countries" (States) from shortly after the Declaration until the Constitution was adopted in 1789.

What has always impressed me in these documents, besides the language, has been their simplicity. One could almost see Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson sitting in their rooms in Philadelphia (the rooms, if I recall correctly, still stand not far from Independence Hall and are a moving visit) and tacking a sign up on the wall: "Keep It Simple Stupid!" Likely, though, they would have used somewhat more formal language.

The Articles of Confederation were superseded not because their language or structure itself failed, nor due to their rigidity, but because the structure they meant to embody was unworkable. The States were placed at each other's throats, usually competitive, sometimes physically, the federal government was too weak to deal with any real external threats or even negotiate with any authority, and the entire structure was at risk of imploding. The Articles themselves, though, were clear and concise, laying out large borders of responsibility and authority.

The Constitution, while longer, is still tiny by the standards of modern law, let alone the still-failed EU Constitution. The US Constitution consists of ~4,000 words over 11 pages; the EU Constitution is 70,000 words long and runs over 800 pages, including all the declarations and definitions and preambles. The most recent large US legislation, the Affordable Care Act, is nearly 380,000 (!) words long, not including regulations written and yet to be determined.

There are two key related reasons to go for simplicity in any mission statement, vision, founding document, or law:

  • Flexibility: simple guidelines give lots of freedom and room for individuals to work with the law as times evolve, rather than fight it, ignore it and eventually try to overhaul it. This gives it greater acceptance and staying power, i.e. longevity.
  • Readability: Any reasonably educated person can read and understand the Declaration and Constitution; the Declaration is almost poetry in its ability to move people. Complex laws and statements, on the other hand, can only be read and understand by a professional class. Just about any person in the United States knows what the First Amendment is, and what "freedom of association" means. People can and do debate the limits and how they apply, but the principles instill themselves in people and motivate them.

In the business world, the same principle of simplicity holds. Microsoft's famous vision of "a computer in every home," inspired e at Microsoft, from CEO Gates down to the newest recruit. They understood and imbibed the mission and worked towards it. Conversely, companies with complex (often big-consulting-firm-driven) vision statements centered around details of their offerings often find themselves bogged down, with unmotivated people and difficulty selling. I had a client who tried to write a 3-line paragraph for a vision; I was able to turn it into a phrase of 6 words. Convincing them to use it, however, was another story; they were enamoured of their offerings, rather than the vision that would enable them to sell those offerings. As the saying goes, fall in love with solving the problem, not your solutions.

If you want your people, and your customers, to adopt your vision, believe in it, and work towards it, and give your organization longevity and growth, as Thomas Jefferson might say, "Keep It Simple."