Story times by Andrew Woolfson, RPC

This article was also featured as an opinion piece in the February 2016 issue of Briefing. To read the issue in full, download Briefing

It’s against all my instincts to start a piece with an obscure computer operating system definition. But here goes. ‘Less’ is a program to view the contents of a text file, one screen at a time. It’s similar to ‘More’, but has the extended capability of allowing both forward and backward navigation through the file. Less doesn’t need to read the entire file before starting – so, faster load times with large files. There we have it. You can do more with less – it has more impact. No need to write any more.

But the computer geek’s quote isn’t the whole story. It’s a bit like misunderstanding “wherefore art thou, Romeo?” It’s not all about tuning the software of transactions – not that that’s a bad thing to do. But the less-is-more movement is something that has simplicity and elegance at its heart – the philosopher’s sense of form.

A lot of bright business ideas could do with more less-is-more treatment. There’s only so much a brain can cope with after transport, weather, social conventions and human errors of the day. Why make it harder than it is already?

I’ve got used to asking a dumb question of people: ‘What’s the problem and what needs to be solved?’ It’s when you get to this really solid piece of information that a project can take shape. But then the ‘management skills’ kick in. Lurking behind a response is defensiveness, and you overdo the managing down of expectations – so the ‘computer says no’. Resist those management models swirling around in your head, and just start listening to people. It’s now described as ‘socialising your thinking,’ but it means actively listening – not putting words into others’ mouths, but encouraging them to talk with their stories.

Be like the investigative journalist. Find out what the story is first. Listen. And keep rechecking to frame and validate the reasons for the problem or new opportunity. But here’s the rub: not many have this skill. We get carried away with our professional backgrounds – and we want to talk instead.

It’s only the passionate few who will engage in your language, and give you the same in response. And be warned – they might create a totally new set of issues to revalidate.

It’s just as hard to relate the story to all the things that need fixing – optimising, integrating, reprocessing, architecting. These aren’t jobs for the amateur. Pay these people. But if money’s tight, think about boiling the problem down some more. It’s not Grand Designs – we all know what happens to the housebuilder’s budget.

Instead, create an early design – like a stage set model. Various groups can look around, see what’s on offer and, hopefully, how the solution relates to the problem. It’s early, and it can be reworked. But post-pilot – where all development has been baked in – it’s hard to change tack. It’s easier to do a smoke-and-mirrors job instead.

Architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe – daddy of the less-is-more movement – wanted to “reduce and distil buildings and their components into simple forms in which art and technics – geometry and matter” were integrated. With less to concern you aside from something that works you don’t see the joins. Elegance should be aspired to. This brings me to my own personal breakthrough moment working in a professional services firm. I showed Toy Story as an intro to a project for sharing more commercial knowledge across the firm. But the great technology-based animation wasn’t seen – just a great story. 


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