How To Make The Sum Of The Parts Philosophy Work For You


Monday, 8.35pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Life is painting a picture, not doing a sum. – Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

Have you ever had one of those days where you look at everything around you and wonder how it got just so messy?

I’ve had a few of them recently, making me conscious of physical, digital and mental clutter – and that makes me wonder why that is and what to do about it.

Physical clutter is visible, in your face, something you can’t get away from.

We should know how to deal with it by now – using the first two steps of the 5S method.

Look at everything in front of you and tag each item that is not absolutely needed for the tasks you do.

Get those things into a holding area – you’ll go through them later and either throw them away or store them where you can get them if needed.

Look at what’s left and work out how to store it so its clear and simple what goes where.

All you should have in your drawer is a pen, a couple of pencils, a sharpener and an eraser. Maybe a hole punch and stapler.

I currently have around 45 pencils and a ridiculous number of pens – and since I do everything in text files, I’m probably going to need one pencil for the next ten years for the odd drawing here and there.

The same problems affect you when it comes to digital and mental clutter – both just grow and grow until they form monolithic blocks that you just can’t do anything about.

Which is why you have to try so hard to start small and stay small.

All too often we approach problems like the way we put stuff in a drawer.

We put everything in there that we think we’ll need until it’s so stuffed that it’s hard to open – we have those days where something sticks in the back and we just can’t pull the drawer out at all and even when we do get in there we can’t find what we want.

That’s the experience we have in many organisations, trying to get things done or when trying to use software that’s been designed to be the one solution to all our problems.

By trying to do everything we end up finding it hard to do anything.

Why is this the case?

There seem to be two reasons.

First, when we try and solve all the problems we have we create lots of rules for things that happen rarely.

The classic business example here is a checklist that turns into an assurance form with seven signatures.

As a checklist, it helped the person using it make sure they didn’t miss any steps.

As a form, it becomes a way to cover your back – to blame someone else when something goes wrong.

The second reason is that when we build things into closely coupled systems they find it hard to play nicely with other systems.

That’s when you get functional silos in businesses, as teams that work only with each other find it difficult to cooperate with others.

A different model is to have smaller systems that do one thing well and combine them when you need something more.

It’s a loosely coupled system, one that comes together based on need.

In business terms this might be a starting with a team of one or two people and adding resources only when needed.

It’s the opposite of setting up a steering group and governance panel and ten project members who spend all their time discussing process and very little time producing work.

The main difference between a lean, loosely coupled system and a monolithic, tightly coupled one is what happens when you set them free to operate for a while.

The monolithic one does what it’s designed to do – it follows the rules and produces the output as specified.

It doesn’t matter if the output is good or bad – it meets specifications.

A lean system is responsive – it’s able to respond to what’s going on and recreate itself, if needed, to produce output as required.

There’s also a chance that it will do things differently, maybe better than you expected – because the ability of the parts to function independently allows for the possibility of emergence – of something more than the sum of its parts.

I suppose one approach is about being in control while the other is about being responsive to change.

It’s the difference between being a shark and a shoal.

The world has place for both.

You’ve got to decide which approach is likely to lead to success for you.


Karthik Suresh

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