Edward de Bono wrote much. His book, Simplicity, I think is very appropriate to apply to asset management and KPI decision making. The part that resonated with me is the difference between simple and simplistic.
In Infrastructure decision making a simple model is a great thing, a simplistic model is a destructive and dangerous thing. This is true in all fields, engineering, economic and social included. Simplistic by definition is overly simple. Unfortunately many of out decision makers have a simplistic understanding of both the English language and the role of infrastructure. You will hear many people calling for a more simplistic solution or approach. They mean “simple”, but one doubts whether the inability to differentiate between simplistic and simple translates into the making of sound decisions.
Regardless, satisfaction surveys, mandated bureaucratic KPIs, single-digit comparisons to like organisations and other such endeavors are simplistic management techniques. They have been over-simplified and are as a consequence of no value.
Simplicity before understanding is simplistic; simplicity after understanding is simple.
– Edward De Bono
Simplistic decisions are tolerated and often demanded by our populations. I believe this is because the general public has little understanding of the complexities of the modern world, and no desire to embrace that understanding. While the situations and decisions can be presented simply by our leaders, there is no political advantage in straying from binary arguments, right and wrong, black and white. The issue here is to help people understand that complex arguments about infrastructure can be presented simply, and be debated on their merits. With this understanding, the people can call for rational debate, not simplistic decision making. As professionals in our fields we can assist by presenting our work as simply as possible and resisting pressure to make our work simplistic.
Question for the day:
What techniques do you use, or know of, that help you to determine whether your reasoning is ‘simple’ or ‘simplistic’?
I started off responding with a few lines about why I find storytelling the most useful technique to embody “simple” reasoning (whether or not it is referred to as a “story” – this can lose credibility in rational circles like engineering!!!). My key point is that stories are never a simple “right answer” they demand that we understand “this is where we are, this is where we want to be and this is how we plan to get there / what will help / what will hinder us”, and then all our decisions need to be evaluated in this context. This isn’t to say they embody perfect knowledge… what I like about the storytelling technique is that you can sketch the framework out immediately, but then firm up the details as you learn more. It’s equally useful / more so when it is then applied more broadly in a political context (e.g. community strategic plans in local government).
This reminded me of an essay by Stanley Hauerwas (from System to Story: an alternative pattern for rationality in ethics), where he argues against objective accounts of right and wrong and in favour of a narrative approach that (no doubt being “simplistic” about what he says) acknowledges that it depends on where we want to head as to whether a particular action is right or wrong.
There’s some curious applications of these ideas for this post: while there’s certainly an objective element that must inform infrastructure-related decisions (based on the scientific principles associated with it), whether that is right or wrong depends on where we want to head. Engineers can get frustrated by that because they like having a “right answer”. The big challenge, though, to implementing these ideas is the lack of meaningful story – strategic plans at the community/political levels – that provides the context to determine right and wrong.
Gregory poses a very good question. “What techniques do you use, or know of, that help you to determine whether your reasoning is ‘simple’ or ‘simplistic’?”
The technique I use is to test the present and past evidence underlying the story or message on a scientific basis, not just selective evidence that supports the story. Communication of complex issues must be simple to be understood by decision makers and communities, either through “storytelling” or graphic techniques like dashboards of combinations of the two. This is the executive summary with the key messages like the Strategic Asset Management Plan executive summary. This must be supported by the evidence in the detailed asset management plans and/or asset class plans. It is true that only technical people are likely to read them but they provide an essential evidence base for the executive summary.