Less is more is a philosophy more than a statement. Unfortunately, it is a rare commodity in human endeavors. I have just spent almost three hours on a “Chat” line with a technician from a company my partner has used for years. That company has become the “bible” for construction pricing in the United States. It is a reference tool used by construction companies and insurance companies alike, when a standard “market value” of a product is required. It’s very useful.

     A month or so ago they sent out a notice saying they were updating their software and the old version would no longer be available after November this year. All clients were advised to switch over now, so they could learn the new system in time for the change.

     Having followed those instructions, I went into the new system to check some prices. I couldn’t find them. Three days, and many pages of “Chat” later, I finally found a technician willing to listen to what I wanted. It turned out to be an almost impossible request. Whatever moron had designed the new system had decided to eliminate the access I needed, and used to access so easily. It’s possible that the company’s management might have thought they had created such a captive market that they could diversify the business, and extract more money from their clients. However, in the process, they eliminated the main reason for the company’s success and its reputation.

     On reflection, this is a very common mistake. Question: Have you ever encountered an upgrade, re-issue, update, or change of any sort that made things simpler? Usually, whoever is empowered to make those changes, automatically feels obligated to make the original bigger, better, and more complicated, in order to justify their efforts. It’s a human disease!

     I remember, years ago, encountering an enlightened library program officer in the U.S. Department of Education. He decided that, since every education institution in the country received, by law, the same amount of funding for their libraries, it was not necessary for them to prepare a twenty-page proposal to get those funds. He designed a one-page form. That lasted two years before the Department went back to requiring a twenty-page proposal. How dare he do something that reduced administrative work, and diminished the importance of the program?

     The University of Virginia has done some research on this human condition. They asked participants to alter a pattern on a grid of colored squares to make it symmetrical. The task could have been equally well achieved by deleting squares, or by adding them. 78% of participants chose to add squares. Another group was asked to alter an essay they had written. 16% of the participants reduced the number of words they had written, while 80% added more words.

     In a completely different study, a group, probably architects or engineers, were asked to make design changes to a golf course TO MAKE IT WORSE. Adding features, rather than subtracting them, won out significantly in the redesigns they submitted.    

     The University of Virginia researchers then wondered if this “addition” tendency is learned, or innate. They started by checking if the tendency was cultural. Studies conducted in Japan and Germany produced exactly the same results as their studies back home.

     They continue with their quest of trying to find out why we tend to solve problems by actually adding to them.

     Once in a great while, a beacon of hope emerges, and systems are made simpler, but “less is more” seems to be a very rare insight, unfortunately.

     I plan to have a conversation this coming week with the sales and management teams, rather than the technicians, of the roofing standards company, but I don’t hold out much hope of a positive resolution. It seems that “development” equals “expansion and complication” in the human world. Any hope that it might, even occasionally, equal “reduction and simplification”, seems doomed.

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