Retired Air Force Lt. Col. Dan Ward says too many people mistake complexity for sophistication.

Retired Air Force Lt. Col. Dan Ward says too many people mistake complexity for sophistication. Erin Covey Creative/Used by permission of the author

To Advance the Mission, More Feds Should Consider Doing Less

Managers often mistake complexity for sophistication, and the result is bad for everyone, a former military acquisition executive argues.

Before he retired from the Air Force earlier this year, Dan Ward spent most of his career trying to get needed technology into the hands of warfighters as efficiently as possible. With three engineering degrees and two decades of experience designing, testing and fielding military equipment, the retired lieutenant colonel knows more than most people about the problems associated with federal procurement. Awarded the Bronze Star Medal for service in Afghanistan in 2012, Ward also understands the real-life consequences a flawed acquisition system can have for men and women in uniform and the missions they support.

He recently published “The Simplicity Cycle: A field guide to making things better without making them worse,” (Harper Business, 2015). The book offers a kind of blueprint for thinking about many of the challenges leaders in any organization face, but it has its roots in Ward’s experience as an engineer and acquisition officer. “It really goes back to running into a lot of situations where people seemed to equate complexity with sophistication,” Ward said. He explained that phenomenon and its consequences in a recent interview with Government Executive, which has been edited for length and clarity:

You describe how complexity can waste time and money, reduce transparency and even threaten our lives and well-being. Yet, people seem drawn to complex products and solutions. Why is that?

We do have a natural taste for complexity. Part of it is that as designers, as engineers, as policy makers, complexity looks like work. If I want to demonstrate to my boss, to my customer or any other interested stakeholder that I did something today, that’s easy to do if I made things more complicated. Simplicity is hard—it takes a lot of skill and talent and discipline to produce something that’s simple, but a lot of times, when you finally arrive at that simple design, it doesn’t look like a lot of work was done. For self-preservation reasons, we go ahead and complexify things because that’s an easier sell.

On the customer side, there’s a lot of research that shows features sell. If we are given an option between two digital cameras and one has 17 modes it can operate in and the other has 19, we’re going to pay a little extra and buy that 19-mode camera, even though we’ll never actually use more than one or two modes. We feel like we’re getting a better deal when we buy the fancy camera with more features.

Are you optimistic people will read your book and change that behavior?

I am optimistic that people can make better decisions about this stuff—whether or not anyone will read the book is a different question. But I’m optimistic that it’s possible, and I say that because I did that. I really came up with the concept for the simplicity cycle about 10 years ago, and I’ve been using it pretty consistently on my projects and in my work while in uniform and got some really great results.

We have a hard time dealing with complexity because we don’t have the right vocabulary to have a conversation about simplicity and complexity. For example, to some people the word simple means easy, to others it means not complicated—those are two very different things. With the diagram in my book I try to give us a visual vocabulary to talk about some of these issues minus this baggage.

I like the way you describe the distinctions between complex and complicated, simple and simplistic. I think people confuse those things in their mind if not their grammar.

I did spend a little time on the grammar. I think it’s helpful to have a distinction between those four words. Nonetheless, people will still read my book and tell me “Dan, I loved your book. It was so simplistic.” That’s why we have the diagram.

You point out in a very visual way the law of diminishing returns. How do you know when you’ve reached that point, either from the engineering side or the acquisition side?  

I think in both cases it’s an iterative process, where you’re constantly testing hypotheses. Your vector matters more than your position, if I can get technical. It’s not so much, “Where am I right now?” but rather, “That last change I made—what direction did that move me in? This next change I’m proposing, what direction will that take me in?”

One of the things I did it on the last project I led while on active duty was we kept asking “What if we do a little bit less?” Sometimes the answer was if we do a little bit less it won’t be acceptable, it will be inadequate. So then you don’t do less. But sometimes the answer was that things would be better, clearer: Fewer meetings could lead to clearer communication. If we scale down the scope of our next flight test, we actually learn more, faster, than if we cram everything into that first flight.

I like that question because it doesn’t imply an answer. Sometimes good things happen, sometimes bad things happen. It’s all part of that process.

In the book you say simplicity is not the point, but goodness is the point. Most people don’t think of “goodness” in the context of federal acquisition.

From a federal acquisition perspective, you really have to get back to the point of why do we do acquisitions in the first place? What’s the problem we’re trying to solve? What’s the goodness we’re trying to deliver? On the military side of things, we’re looking to help make this country stronger by making sure our folks in uniform have the tools and the technology, the weapons systems and the IT systems they need to get the mission done. Other federal agencies have their own goals and objectives.

Does the product or service we’re buying help us achieve our objectives? Or do we just make things more complicated? If we focus on goodness, complexity almost becomes irrelevant.

I don’t think most of us step back frequently enough to ask ourselves why we’re doing what we’re doing.     

I actually wrote a paper several years ago looking at the purpose of defense acquisition. I did a very informal, unscientific survey of 24 different people and I just asked them “What is the goal of defense acquisition?” I got back more than 24 different answers. The fact that there was not a clear consensus on why we do this acquisition thing is in itself a problem. It’s no wonder things get more complicated if we can’t agree on why we’re doing it. If we put goodness at the center of the discussion it helps orient us.

If you could change one thing about the role or experience of federal acquisition officials, what would it be?   

If there is one thing I would change, it would be a wider appreciation for what the Federal Acquisition Regulation actually says about the importance of simplicity, flexibility, agility. The FAR is supposed to guide behavior and decision-making and problem-solving approaches but very few people have actually opened it up and read through it. They tend to leave it for the specialists, the contracting officers. There’s a lot of things about reducing administrative overhead—now the FAR is the definition of administrative overhead, I get that—but it actually goes to pretty considerable lengths to minimize and reduce the administrative burden on acquisition programs.

Even in the current regulatory environment, there’s plenty to hang your hat on if you’re looking for ways to simplify and streamline and accelerate federal acquisitions.