My Dad taught me and my brother, “There is no premium for complexity.” He emphasized the value of keeping it simple, focusing on the most important things you can control, and getting it done. You don’t get paid more to sound like a robot or technocrat, or to add extra milestones or phases. A good plan is simple, and an effective leader or teacher communicates the plan or idea clearly and relentlessly.
Dad’s message still resonates for me in my work at Forisk. Nobody cares about the sophistication of our forest industry models or the length of our resumes if investments lose money or operations underperform. Simple, well-executed strategies and plans “keep the cow out of the ditch” and on the road towards a pre-defined goal.
Still, most of us can recall times when a plan, approach, or strategy proved overly complex.
As a student at MIT, I played baseball for one of the most effective and important mentors in my life, Coach Fran O’Brien. My senior year, our Varsity Baseball Team won its first ever championship, set a school record for wins, and led the NCAA in fielding percentage. I wrote a book about the team called Beaverball: A Winning Season with the MIT Baseball Team, and dedicated it to Coach. However, at times, even the best of managers can overengineer a message.
Each season during spring training, Coach O’Brien reviewed our various coverages for defending bunts. These defensive schemes – which Coach named x, x-squared, y, y-squared, z, and z-squared – were devised for players comfortable with equation-filled chalkboards and electronic circuits.
Each play designated who covered first and second base, and who would field the bunt laid down by the batter. Sometimes the first baseman charged with the second baseman covering first; sometimes the second baseman charged and sometimes the third baseman. We reviewed these schemes each year and, frankly, I couldn’t remember them as a player and still can’t recount them accurately today.
During my time at MIT, I can only think of one instance where Coach called on these bunt defenses in a game. It occurred during my sophomore year, and I was playing first base. I remember holding a runner on first and looking across the infield to see Coach O’Brien barking from the dugout, “Z-squared! Z-squared!”
I looked to the other players on the infield to see if anyone else knew what to do. We all simply looked at each other, except for Peter Hinteregger at shortstop, who silently clicked into action. I shrugged and moved to cover the bunt as I normally would. Only the bunt didn’t happen – the batter squared around but did not execute – and neither did our bunt coverage. Coach didn’t look at us after the play; he turned away and looked at the ground. That’s the last and only time I remember him calling one of those plays.
Sometimes, we prefer a simple restaurant menu, a basic oil change, and clear parking signage. I like recipes that start with “microwave on HIGH for 2 minutes” and avoid buying clothes with “special” washing instructions. Most of humanity prefers that we keep our message, guidance, and plans short and simple. This is true at work, at home, and on the field.