Simpleminded

SAN FRANCISCO (03/05/2000) - Simplicity: The New Competitive Advantage in a World of More, Better, Faster by Bill Jensen (Perseus Books, $25) Calling someone simple used to be an insult. The so-called simple life really meant "poverty."

Then, in 1981, Duane Elgin wrote Voluntary Simplicity and attached a new notion to the word - a happier, less-harried existence free of cell phones, fax machines, Range Rovers and T1 lines. Disciples of Elgin-style simplicity set off in pursuit of a feel-good life full of respect for the Earth and other creatures, with organic radicchio on the side. Today, the more-time-for-the-important-things movement has spread to practically every corner of our culture.

Oprah urges her legions to take a moment to get in touch with their spiritual side. The self-help guide Simple Abundance cracked the New York Times' bestseller list. Even Maxwell House hawked simplicity in a recent ad campaign, endorsing an interlude of calm as you absorb your caffeine fix. Now, Bill Jensen seeks to push simplicity into the realm that followers of the movement so assiduously seek to avoid: the workplace. Jensen's book Simplicity includes a collection of excerpts culled from more than 2,500 interviews he has conducted in his career as a consultant advising companies on how they design and organize their workflow.

Jensen discovered that most people - from line workers to CEOs - found the dispersal of information in their companies confusing. A simpler design was needed. Jensen claims that by implementing the theories of simplicity, corporations can work less on what's trivial and more on what's truly important in our culture of "more, better, faster." Companies should be more like "SimpliCorp," a fictional firm Jensen created to show off his methodology.

SimpliCorp employees are invited to ask questions about their purpose before starting their assignments. Like most business tomes of late, Jensen's easy-to-read type is peppered with checklists, worksheets and how-tos. There are quotes from CEOs - as well as from Groucho Marx, Abe Lincoln and Buckaroo Bonzai, a film hero who lived a rather complicated life as crime-stopper, rock star and neurosurgeon. Inevitably, we also hear from the "Net Geners," as Jensen dubs them. He warns that businesses will have to bend their methods to these independent and impatient employees. Jensen offers what he considers an "eloquent summary" from one 17-year-old interviewee: "In the end, we're all human. It comes down to basic human nature.

We need to pay attention to the way people connect and how they need things."

The book is rife with such platitudes, and worse. At one point Jensen suggests that employees demand to know why a given meeting is relevant to their job and, if the person calling the meeting can't answer, to walk out. That'll simplify your life in a hurry - especially if the person who convened the meeting is the CEO. While the basic concepts ring true - respect coworkers' time, trust your employees - most businesses are not run like an EST seminar, nor should they be.

If a business is going public at light speed, employees need to move that quickly, as well. Sure, sitting down and pondering your purpose in a company may bring you clarity, but nowadays there usually isn't time. And many of Jensen's so-called new ideas have already been implemented at corporations. In a marketplace where companies are forced to offer people downtime instead of money, where unemployment is at its lowest in 30 years, where employees are choosing employers instead of vice versa, firms are now retooling the way they run.

Unfortunately, this book serves only to confuse the issue of simplicity. The graphics are hard to read and checklists interrupt the text, making it difficult to follow. Jensen should have listened to his own advice and cut through the clutter.

Lauren Barack prefers her life cluttered and complicated.

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