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  • Writer's pictureBill Holmes

Why is everything so complicated??

Project, program, portfolio, management
So many rules, so little value...

“Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.” Confucius

“Any darn fool can make something complex; it takes a genius to make something simple.” Pete Seeger

Why are large organizations so complicated? I am not referring to the core work which may be very complicated, rather I am referring to the ecosystems they create for their employees. It seems like the systems are designed to confuse and ensnare employees in a byzantine web of rules and regulations rather than support them as they go about the business of the organization.

This is so prevalent that many famous authors and cartoonists have been mocking this for years, including my personal favorite, Scott Adams of “Dilbert” fame.

But why?

The first reason is that people do make bad and unethical decisions, so there is a need for guidance and oversight. However, over time the guidance expands to cover every potential situation. Eventually you have so much guidance and complexity that the average person is never certain they are completely in compliance with all the rules at any given moment.

The second reason is that many organizations are hyper sensitive to the “appearance” of impropriety, which leads them to make bizarre choices. For example, you if you want to hold a meeting you would normally look for the least cost place that met your needs. However, if that least cost place is also a fun place, you can’t go because it would look bad! I’m not sure to whom, but to someone.

The third reason is the continued and growing influence of the legal class on day to day activities. Let’s pretend that I work for an organization that provides me with a corporate credit card. One would think that if I were issued such a thing that I would be trusted! Probably not. Most of my corporate friends (and I include myself) are amazed at the complex rules around such a simple thing! I would think that some broad guidelines would suffice. Don’t make non travel purchases and pay the bill each month seems about right. But no….

The final reason is a bizarre notion of “fairness”. Everyone must be treated the same, even if doing so creates universal discontent. At least it’s fair! Didn’t qualify for a job that you are currently doing? That’s fairness! Have to drive 56 miles on your own dime because you need to be 60 miles away before you get reimbursed? Gotta be consistent!

And on and on.

Don’t forget that if you put in place all these rules, you need an army of bureaucrats to ensure compliance! Bureaucrats who are in no way contributing to the core mission of the organization.

I believe that application of good risk management principles would have a dramatic impact on these decisions. Risk is about probability and impact, and we apply cost benefit analysis to each risk. Is the cost of avoiding corporate card misuse risk through a complicated web of rules and supporting bureaucracy worth the risk of someone using their corporate card at the 7-11.

Probably not.

You will always catch the really bad behavior, so why make it hard on everyone else?


One of my great pleasures is boating. I started with a very small boat and over time worked my way up to a nice size boat that we can take other marinas for the weekend. I started volunteering at the local yacht club, and last year was the “Fleet Captain”. That job involved making sure all the dock related activities were taken care of. This year I am serving as the “Rear Commodore”, which means I will be responsible for the bar. It appears we are gradually moving up my skill stack!


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