The practice of architecture underwent a profound change at the end of World War I that holds a valuable lesson for today’s leaders in how they operate day to day. Each of us is in our own way an architect, having created a ‘personal communications architecture’ for our own use. It has doors and rooms and hallways—i.e., the search engines and websites and social media platforms we use—that allow us access and transit, get us informed and entertained, in ways that, at least eventually and somewhat, meet our needs. It contains us, virtually, like a building.
But the user experience of this virtual building of personal communications is troubled. There are few, if any, quiet places. No matter where we sit, somebody pops in to bother us. They seem to know things about us we didn’t tell them. Sometimes they’re rude, sometimes they’re polite; they always want something from us, and they’re persistent about it. In this building, every door you open swings both ways; it lets you in then bonks you from behind. Shop here! Read this newsflash! Congratulate Joe Smith on his third work anniversary! We move around inside it looking for relief, talking to ourselves in whispers that occasionally become screams of exasperation.
Take a look at the two pictures accompanying this post. One of them symbolizes the way the internet, search engine and social media nexus collectively likes to think of itself – open, transparent, accessible and inclusive. The other, with its rigid structure, narrow windows, and byzantine passageways, is a more accurate symbol of what it has become. All of us today, leaders included, are trapped inside this virtual communications environment, trying to optimize our transmissions, hoping to find some daylight.
Our challenge is much more complicated than that of the practicing architect 100 years ago, for reasons I’ll explain, but the earlier lessons are equally applicable.
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The inevitable political reckoning following the senseless, horrific trench battles of WWI swept aside monarchies and ruling elites and extended inevitably into the culture at large. Artists in every discipline reflected their disillusionment that leaders could cause such human carnage by questioning the very foundations of their arts. Irish poet WB Yeats famously wondered in The Second Coming ‘And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?’ and the so-called Modern Age took shape around a quest for new truths.
Pre-war architects of the Gilded Age in the late 19thand early 20thCentury had drawn from the core vocabulary of earlier classic styles to create new and different design elements to distinguish their ‘neoclassical’ buildings. New York City’s venerable Public Library constructed from 1897 to 1911 (pictured above left) exemplifies this grand style, commanding four city blocks bounded by Fifth and Sixth Avenues and 40thand 42ndStreets. It bespeaks a massive, unquestioning self-confidence virtually impossible in the immediate aftermath of the Great War.
A post-war group of European architects, aided by advances in steel, glass and concrete, and trying to make order out of chaos, began to experiment with new forms. Foremost among these were Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, known as Mies. All three worked in the same studio in Berlin prior to the war, before branching off, emigrating to the US and achieving their prominence.
Mies was the phrasemaker amongst them. His predecessor architects, confronting the challenge of outfitting their buildings with the ever-more particular features of the neoclassical style, were known to say, ‘The Devil is in the details!’ Mies’s counter to the neoclassicals was as elegant as his architecture: ‘God is in the details,’ simultaneously tweaking the laboriousness of the neoclassical form, and posting a reminder that the building maker’s endeavor must connect the base-level work to the spiritual plane.
Mies’s better-known motto provides the title for this post: Less is More. It is a phrase he was given as guidance by an early mentor and never forgot, eventually adopting it as the mission for his life’s work. His design for S.R. Crown Hall at the Illinois Institute of Technology (pictured above right), exemplifies the simplicity of form, open plan, and transparency of the modernist style…less providing more.
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Why is this phrase useful in the context of leadership today? Leaders face a deluge of information and advice to inform their conduct of business, an endless procession of inbound, every piece proclaiming its relevance and vying for CEO attention. The machinery of attention-grabbing behind the screens in every leader’s office has been growing at an accelerating pace since the dawn of the internet, player after player vying to add design elements and detail to an increasingly ornate internet, search engine and social media infrastructure.
Here are the different elements of this ‘attention grabbing machinery:’
- First there is the broad assortment of devices we may choose as entry points for personal communications: phones; tablets; laptop computers; desktop computers; smart TVs; and the ever-growing Internet of Things. We all have more than one and they’re ever-present
- A list of just the access channels for conveying information includes: email; texts and other ‘instant messaging’ tools; RSS feeds; social media; podcasts; app notifications; app updates; phone calls; magazines; newspapers; book publishers; snail mail; television networks; cable and satellite channels; online streaming; movie theaters and their previews; meetings and other direct personal communications
- Then there are all the attention-seekers feeding information into those channels, including: family; friends; acquaintances; friends of family and friends; employees; customers; advisors; vendors; people you don’t know with something to sell ie would-be advisor / vendors; headhunters; networks or affinity groups you belong to; publishers and other influencers e.g., news gatherers, bloggers, and content marketers; politicians and their agents; bad actors, sovereign nations and their agents
- And then there are all the ways a given instance of attention seeking is divided up to further prioritize your attention, including: the headline, right rail, left rail and other slots on a web landing page; the analogs on any printed page e.g., newspapers, magazines; the ‘crawl’ across the bottom of a screen; ‘push’ anything, e.g., advertising, notifications; pop-up / pop-in ads in smart phone-optimized material; pre-highlighting key words / takeaways in articles; every page pulsating with multiple attention grabbers
- Finally, there are all the ways content is truncated to better target your attention: lists, lists and more lists; surveys, frequently brief ; selected expert polling; more, shorter articles per issue
- As an example, Inc Magazine’s Winter 2018 / 2019 issue is 124 pages long of which 68 pages, barely half, are news reporting, composed as follows:
- 39 one-page articles
- 8 two-page articles
- 4 articles of greater length (4, 6, 10 and 14 pages respectively)
- And including: 11 sidebars, 2 lists and 2 surveys
- As an example, Inc Magazine’s Winter 2018 / 2019 issue is 124 pages long of which 68 pages, barely half, are news reporting, composed as follows:
But the above is just a list of things you can actually see coming at you. The deeper story concerns what’s going on behind the screens—outside the building represented by your personal communications architecture—and the consequences, some unintended, some not, of the free-range internet.
- Eli Pariser sounded one of the early warning signals about what you can’t see in his 2011 TED talk ‘Beware online “filter bubbles”’ that revealed the way your search, social media and other internet activities are tracked and analyzed by ‘algorithmic gatekeepers,’ in order to serve you a reality they deem ‘relevant,’ but which you did not select…and might disagree with
- Mathematician Cathy O’Neil does a deep dive on the work of algorithms in 2016’s Weapons of Math Destruction, concluding from numerous examples that mathematical models are ‘not only deeply entangled in the world’s problems but also fueling many of them’
- Veteran tech investor Roger McNamee’s Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe just now hitting the bookshelves, is a devastating expose of Facebook’s duplicitous engagement with bad actors, informed by McNamee’s unique position as early company investor and advisor to Zuckerberg. McNamee advocates a broad political movement with legislative, regulatory and leadership action to address the danger to democracy clearly presented by what Facebook (and Google and Twitter) are currently able to do without consequence behind the screens in front of us
While this ‘rough beast’ is ‘slouching towards Bethlehem,’ what are leaders to do in the virtual buildings they’ve constructed for themselves? As CEO you must design, build and manage your organization, lead your people in accomplishing the company’s strategy, and confront the same challenge Mies did to create order and form out of chaos. You can’t just decide to read nothing that requires more than 3 minutes’ attention, despite its appeal!
A ‘Less is More’ approach of some sort is clearly warranted.
As one would hope and expect, various commentators, advisors and policy advocates have raised the alarm and are trying to make some version of less-is-more a reality in our society.
- Josh Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus have staked out a corner of the internet as ‘The Minimalists,’ dispensing ‘less is more’ business and leadership advice since 2010 on a wide range of topics in pithy, minimalist ways
- Catherine Steiner-Adair provides advice for families and educators in properly positioning technology use in educating children and achieving a ‘sustainable family,’ given how we’ve lost the boundary between work and home. Her 2013 The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in The Digital Age studied the effects of the internet, smart phones and social media on kids and families, documenting the isolating and disconnecting effects of ‘too much tech, too soon’
- Tristan Harris and other tech luminaries co-founded The Center for Humane Technology, with the goal of transforming public awareness of how ‘the race to monetize our attention is eroding the pillars of our society: mental health, democracy, social relationships, and our children,’ and inspiring humane design of technology
- Mass culture is captivated by Marie Kondo. Her 2014 book the life-changing magic of tidying uphas tapped into a zeal for making less from more things in spaces and developed a followership that is growing daily. She published a further how-to spark joyin 2016, and launched ‘Tidying up with Marie Kondo’ on Netflix in January of this year to bring her brand of less-is-more to the masses
Support of all kinds is growing in the culture at large for all of us to do more with less. But before we turn to how to go about it for leaders, let’s pause to remind ourselves why ‘less is more’ is so important for leaders.
- A CEO’s Job One is to develop strategy, and strategy is about choices—which products to make, which customers to serve, which markets to enter, what tactics will beat the competition. Deciding what to do, and crucially what not to do, from a complex array of possible choices is the CEO’s daily fare.
- The job is most profoundly to simplify the complex and engage others around it. All the strategy books boil down to that simple maxim.
- There is no more important operating principle for a leader than ‘less is more.’
So, plowing through the mound of inbound and keeping things simple is critical to success, but how to further operationalize ‘less is more’ with your personal communications architecture in a way that might be useful for your organization?
As Thoreau said, “It’s not enough to be industrious; so are the ants. What are you industrious about?”
Herewith one person’s view of the basic steps to take in pursuing ‘less is more” as a leadership operating principle.
Manage these three dimensions to make more from less: sources; time and attention; meaning.
- Sources. From whence and through what channels do you take input as leader?
- Time and attention. How do you manage your time so as to optimize your attention on the sources of input you’ve chosen?
- Meaning. With so many diverse points of view coming at you, from your chosen sources, at times when you can optimize your attention, how do you make meaning out of what you’re seeing?
Meaning. Key to managing all three dimensions of ‘less is more’ is the challenge of deriving meaning from what you see and hear, so I’ll deal with that first. Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz provided a clarifying decision rule with this late ‘90s prediction: ‘In the 21stCentury, the most important source of competitive advantage will be how fast you can identify and appropriate new ideas.’
Every word of this maxim is important:
- ‘Source of competitive advantage’ and ‘how fast’ make obvious sense; getting a leg up on the competition and doing so quickly are universal goods
- ‘Identify’ and ‘appropriate’ and ‘new ideas’ are the three critical levers here. To identify what’s new, you have to know what you know. With all the barrage of information coming at you, vying for attention, fragmenting its bombardment across the page for maximum distraction, selling you on its immediacy and importance, it is essential not to lose track of what you know already
- So, don’t just make time to read the inbound; make time to think about it. Read with a skeptic’s eye – haven’t I heard this somewhere before? Is this really as new as it says it is? Triage inbound information actively, move away from the familiar, direct your attention to new ideas
- To appropriate something, you have to decide its utility. Where can I use this? If I put this into practice, would it make a positive difference? If so, how?
- Lastly, if something would be really useful, take the risk of adding to inbox clutter and pass it on. A new idea is worth nothing unless it has influence. Forward it to a key team member and ask for comment. Put it on the agenda for your next staff meeting and discuss it. New ideas are an opportunity to do something different, to grow, to improve, to inspire. As a leader makes meaning, so should those who follow. Use the privilege of your position to inform and inspire the thinking and actions of others
Time and attention. Key to managing time and attention is to put some structure into your processing of information. This structure has two dimensions: what if anything you allow to interrupt what you’re doing so that you pay attention to it now; and how you schedule your available time.
- Here it’s best to start with the schedule: when do you check email? When do you check for text messages, Slack or other ‘instant message’ tools? If the answer is ‘whenever,’ then you’re unlikely to be optimally productive
- Decide what amount of time you must expose yourself to inbound on a daily basis and put time blocks in your schedule. Start with three blocks and see whether you can eventually go to two. Ask yourself if you really need to be ‘On’ all the time
- Make your tools work for you, not on you. The Center for Humane Technology has a curated list of techniques to limit your smart phone’s “attention grabbbing,” including a list of apps and extensions to help you live without distraction [click here]
- Whose inbound do you pay attention to right away, regardless of schedule? This should be as short a list as possible, with a bias toward voice to voice. Here’s a neat trick for making this work: Tell your short list of family, friends and associates your time blocks for responding to inbound. Let them know that if they need you outside of that to text you ‘Need quick chat’ twice in quick succession. You can then recognize the need by how your phone buzzes, call them and say ‘What’s up?’ You’ll be surprised by how infrequently you are interrupted, and rewarded by having meaningful conversations whenever you are
- In sum, train your constituents’ expectations to match your ‘work rhythm.’ You will soon find more time to think, time and freedom to direct your attention vs leaving yourself open to the legions of attention-seekers who would re-set your priorities
Sources. It is axiomatic that the more sources of information you have, the more inbound you’ll have to manage. The analog to Marie Kondo’s ‘Does it bring you joy?’ in the leadership space is ‘Does it bring you value?’
- Start with a thoughtful selection of information sources. I read three newspapers every day – Wall St. Journal, New York Times and Boston Globe. In addition, I get regular newsfeeds from Chief Executive magazine, Harvard Business Review, McKinsey Quarterly, strategy+business, Pitchbook, CB Insights, and the Angel Capital Association. I’ve settled on these because I get valuable insight from them for my work with CEOs and for my investing. I read the print versions of newspapers over breakfast, and view the online newsfeeds during scheduled time blocks
- Who are your trusted advisors? Whose point of view do you eagerly anticipate when it appears in your Inbox? [You’ve read this far; hopefully I’m on your list!] Route these into their own folders and schedule a time block to consider their latest. If they’ve put time into earning your trust, make time to consider their advice
- Any other feeds are isolated to the Clutter Inbox in MS Outlook. I browse this box for 15 minutes two or three times a week, just in case something new and interesting has found its way to me
Find your own way to grab new ideas and make more from less. You’ll be pleasantly surprised by how it sharpens your leadership. It might also bring you joy!
Comments? I’d like to hear your thoughts. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
As an aside, this issue includes 38 pages of straightforward advertisements, and 18 pages of something called ‘branded content’—one- and occasionally two-page company-specific writeups about either paid advertisers (adjacent to their ad) or Inc 5000 honorees…all positive and virtually indistinguishable from other news reporting in the magazine…a way of not just vying for attention but also manipulating opinion
From a speech to the World Bank cited by knowledge management guru and old friend Larry Prusak in a highly recommended presentation at Knowledge Architecture’s 2017 KA Connect conference https://www.knowledge-architecture.com/ka-connect-talks/how-to-make-km-succeed
If your work rhythm needs rebooting, you may want to consider more drastic action. New York Times tech columnist Kevin Roose reports on a radical plan inDo Not Disturb: How I Ditched My Iphone and Unbroke My Brain. My guess is more of us should give this a try than we realize