Chief Simplicity Officer (CSO)

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not one bit simpler.  – Albert Einstein (1879 – 1955)

A close examination of the role of management on large and more complex projects has often spawned the creation of a new field to address particular issues. Recent examples include the management of human resistance on projects (OCM) and the field of requirements management (BA). This blog seeks to introduce another subdivision or ‘component’ of management – namely the CSO or ‘Chief Simplicity Officer’.

In any successful company the link between organizational strategy and ongoing business results will depend very much on the clear understanding and communication of project performance. A critical success factor here will be the ability of the PM to fulfil the role of ‘CSO’. He or she needs to find a way to represent and communicate this complexity to all stakeholders, in a way that is simple but not dumb. The sole purpose of this new role will be to enable better understanding and decision making by senior managers.

This search for simplicity is not new. Humans have always sought simple explanations to complex ideas – from ‘Archimedes bath’ to ‘Newton’s apple’ to ‘Einstein’s E=MC2’ – we remember, understand and even transmit these complex ideas through generations with ease partly due to their simplicity, and not their complexity.


Even today, tourists to London and Paris are confronted with very different representations of the respective cities networks of subways lines. Paris is complex and accurate, but London is considered by many to be simpler, and more easily understood.

Our hypothetical ‘CSO’ needs to learn from these and other ideas, to enable better understanding and decision making by those who do not have enough time or interest to get involved in the details, but are needed to make important project decisions.

The CSO will need to study and consider the appropriate use of visualization and simulation techniques, and also consider the idea of metaphors and analogies as agents of simplicity. He or she may also need to delve into the world of the artist and the neurologist to see what we can learn from and exploit from these two very different, but valuable areas of expertise.

As Nelson Mandela is rumoured to have said:

“Speak to me in a language I understand and it goes to my brain. However, speak to me in my language and it goes straight to my heart.”

This marriage of science and art can lead to strife and confusion when done badly – but lead to clarity, agreement and better decisions when done well.

A CSO will need knowledge, skills, tools and techniques to assist him/her bridge the gap between complexity and simplicity. A brief look at the subject might uncover these headings:

1. Attention – This is the ability to gain the attention of the individuals concerned. Without attention there is no transfer, no learning and no improvement in decision making. Getting attention involves a great understanding of and empathy with your audience.

We must learn how to get to know the stakeholders better.

2. Motivation – This is a natural follow on from the idea above as maintain attention there must be motivation. Numerous historical studies of motivation have led us from Maslow and Hertzberg to McClelland and Vroom. Many recent additions to the shelves of airport bookstores have also failed to answer the old question “What can I do to motivate you?  The answer is now, as it was then “Absolutely nothing”. All I can do is create an environment within which you can be motivated (or motivate yourself) – whether that environment is fearsome, social, rewarding or whatever.

We must do more to get the horse to drink from the fountain willingly.”

3. Analogies and Metaphors – This is the intelligent use of visualization and representation techniques will allow the message to reach more audiences and may also generate an ‘ah-ha’ moment by engaging the emotions and the right side of the brain.

4. Seeing clearly – The visual artists ‘Christo and Jean-Claude’ might cover a bridge or building to make us look closer or put gates on our walk (central park) to make us see more clearly – maybe we too need to cover up or illuminate something to help other see more clearly.

5. Exposing – sometimes we may need to expose the innards of something in order to appreciate the complexity as in the collaboration of Arup and various architects on the Pompidou Center, Paris, The HSBC building in Hong Kong and The Millennium Bridge in London. Each has stood the test of time as a way to express complexity and maintain beauty and simplicity.

6. Right Brain Appeal – In order to be successful the PSM will need to engage the attention of each stakeholder. Traditional management communication methods have appealed to the left side of the brain. The PSM can add value by taking the information involved in these communications and ‘represent’ it to appeal to the Right brain. A useful aid to this would be to take some ideas from the excellent book by Daniel Pink’s  called ‘A Whole New Brain’. He outlines 6 key areas to consider in any presentation/ communication.

7. Learning the steps – all processes have an inbuilt preferred sequence and we need to find a clever way to embed that sequence automatically and subconsciously. In ‘Keeping Score’ I used an analogy of 9 golf holes to represent the 9 basic steps in managing any project for one of the characters. The other character preferred the concept of 9 ‘symbols’ laid out on a river walk in the same manner as a planetary walk.

To make something that is inherently complex appear simple involves a great understanding of the subject matter coupled with a tremendous empathy with the audience – perhaps that is why this role of CSO may be highly valued but extremely difficult to fill.


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