Appetite for Destruction

March 8, 2017

(or the case for the Chief Destruction Officer)


Give anything enough time, and it becomes complicated. A simple seed grows into a tremendous tree. A simple constitution becomes 1,5m pages of law. A simple-to-use phone becomes an overly complicated piece of hardware that alienates its own customers.

The fact is, that as a species we are very good at making things more complicated than they need to be. But, as users of (whatever, actually) we love simplicity. Anything complicated forces us to think hard, and thinking is a time consuming and energy intensive activity that, if it can be avoided, will be avoided. Although it seems contradictory, that we make things complicated but prefer simplicity, it is actually quite natural. Adding something to what is already there, instead of taking the time to understand what already exists and working within the established context, is simpler and takes less effort. The result is of course, counter productive, but that will be someone else’s problem. Kicking the can down the road, after all, is easier than dealing with it now.

Because this is the way things are, everywhere, we need to make making things simpler, someone’s job. In no uncertain terms, we need to establish the role / department / position of Chief Destruction Officer. Someone, who’s job it is to make things work within the already established context, instead adding functions / laws / regulations / options. Because less is more.

I recently took a Lufthansa flight to Germany. Since this is the 21st century and this was the first time I had to fly with Lufthansa I quite naturally downloaded the app and signed-up and in so I could get my boarding card on my phone and notifications in case the flight was late. I also immediately registered to the frequent flyer program, because…why not? A few weeks later I receive a physical card from Lufthansa, which I don’t actually want or need and will probably forget. But, although the bla-bla letter that came with the card was full of the usual platitudes, the card also came with a 4 pages long user conditions-rules-and-regulations document. Compressed to fit on a single A4, the text was unreadable, and was never read by me. But I’m sure the lawyers thought it was a good idea, because then they can always refer to it, and say that it is my fault for not reading an unreadable piece of paper.

The tax department thought I had earned money that I didn’t declare and asked me to do that. Then they directed me to a form and a brochure, which was impossible for someone not versed in legaleese and bureaucrateese to understand. Although the law is meant for everyone, apparently only trained people are allowed to understand it. The rest must hire a lawyer or accountant, to decipher for them. It is easier for lawyers to write it in a complicated and incomprehensible way than to write concisely using every-day language. Because they’ve never been trained in writing and keeping things simple. After all, it is easy to write long, but it is notoriously difficult to write short.

At a presentation on service design to a government agency responsible to distributing EU funds to applicants, I did mention that the language used in official documents makes it incredibly difficult for people not versed in technicalities to understand exactly what and how they are allowed to apply for. A staff member, following the presentation, confessed that they often struggle with the texts themselves. Therefore, they found it better to leave the texts in the original complicated form and, once a court precedent is established, they’ll know what the text actually meant because they didn’t understand it themselves either. It was simpler to let people to fix it through trial and error.

All these examples have one thing in common – simplicity is usually not a goal in itself. A report that is 50 pages long seems more significant than one that is 5 pages long. How could you spend three weeks and only write one A4?

However, a good customer / user / citizen / staff experience happens EXACTLY because things are simple and easy to understand.

Note, that there is a difference between complex and complicated. Rocket science is complex. But it can be explained / taught / learned in an uncomplicated manner. A DSLR camera is also complex – that doesn’t mean that the instructions have to be. What’s needed is a Chief Destruction Officer, who is responsible for knowing what was done before and why, and can force everyone to consider what already is, before something new is added. In short, someone who can say “I don’t get it,” “we’ve already done this once but in another way” and “go back and do it again.”