Simple Elegance: Stop over-thinking things.

Why is it that smart people always need to find complicated solutions to problems? Can we “over-architect” or “over-collaborate”?

Ever had a 15 minute conversation with your family on the best way to carpool and drive to a location, when said location is less than 15 minutes away? Ever drive around a parking lot with someone debating and searching aimlessly for the closest spot to the entrance when you could have had your shopping done in the same amount of time?

Is it our need to drive efficiency or perfection? The satisfaction that comes from solving a problem in a way that no one has even thought of? Are we (yes, I put myself in this category) all ego driven Type-A’s beating our chest at the need to scream “Look what we have created! It is flawless.”

I was recently in a meeting where we were discussing the possible options for solving a complicated software design issue that had been plaguing our systems for some time. We locked a bunch of our smartest folks in a room and spent three hours working through every permutation ever imagined. We were collaborating-fools, hell-bent on working together as a team. Our managers and former business professors would be proud at how we put our heads together to find a better solution than we could have come up with ourselves. We drew all sorts of pretty pictures on the whiteboard taking each architects “view” into consideration and designing something that was a thing of beauty. Each permutation of our solution better than the first, taking into consideration each “but what if…” comment made on some edge case scenario someone thought of. Each architect’s “what if” trumping the next one and adding to our solution. At the end we had one of the most complicated designs I had ever seen. An elaborate Jackson Pollock-like picture filled with countless bubbles (“systems”) and wires (“interfaces”) strung together. This was an architecture to put under glass and admire from every angle. A solution that should be aged, decanted and held to the light to marvel at.

The only problem was, the solution we designed couldn’t be implemented. It was so complex that it would have taken a team of people to operate it, a new budget to pay for it, and a five years to implement it. Sure it was fun to come up with, but a total waste of time.

The next week we brought a much smaller team of those same thought-leaders back to the drawing board to discuss the same issue. This time we set some ground rules:

  • Any solution needed be attainable in a year’s time.
  • Any solution needed to consider the business objectives and timeline
  • Any solution needed to consider our resource constraints
  • Any solution needed to be easy to operate and maintain

The result: 30 minutes into the next 3 hours meeting we came up with a solution that we’ve begun referring to as “simplistic elegance.” It didn’t meet every edge case, but it met a majority. It wasn’t completely “future proof” or “100% strategic” but it was a good step in the right direction. It had imperfections, but none that would cause anyone to view it as a ‘hack.’ It was a solution the architects, business, finance, and executives could get behind with very little disagreements.We stopped thinking about it, and put it to action.

So the question we’ve now put to our team is how we drive ‘simple elegance’ into our culture. How can we as leaders in-grain this thinking into our teams without stifling creativity, collaboration, and serious problem solving?

I haven’t yet found the answer yet, but I’m pretty sure I’m not going to over-think it. Stay tuned…



About thefoaguy

Comcast Chief Architect, Innovator and Social Media Junkie. View all posts by thefoaguy

3 responses to “Simple Elegance: Stop over-thinking things.

  • Allen

    Architects are a combination of “thinkers” and “doers”, but much heavier on the “thinking” than the “doing”. We like to “think things through”, “let me think about that”, “I need to think on that idea a bit”.

    Analysts have a passion for analyzing. Architects have a passion for architecting. I’m convinced, based on experience at Comcast and other companies, that you should not throw a bunch of architects (only) together to solve a problem. Architects will create an architecture that will handle every possible edge case as well as the happy day path. To achieve success, you need to add at least one person who has the 80/20 rule as a life mantra. Create an architecture that handles the 80% of the use cases that drive the business, and create a manual work around to handle the other 20%…and then start building.

  • Dave Garland

    At Bell Labs, we called this ‘creeping elegance’. It comes in many forms, from the desire to build an architecture to handle everything, to redoing a working architecture to be more elegant. I think it’s in the nature of the profession to seek beauty in the design, and it’s naturally resisted by the business.

    On the other hand, the architect has to resist ‘creeping featurism’ from the business– losing design focus and turning a mouse into an elephant.

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