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Finally, this is an article I wrote for The Financial Times in 1997.  It doesn't really fit anywhere else, so I'll put it here.  


As an engineering student I was taught a number of analytical tools which helped me to understand how things work. Now I notice that many of those tools have been discovered by management schools and have become part of modern business philosophy. For example, the science of control engineering has resurfaced as The Fifth Discipline, the technique of looking at systems as a whole. "Chaos" and "entropy" have appeared in management textbooks, and, of course, that increasingly meaningless term "process re-engineering" is now part of office-speak.

However, there is one little-known scientific model that we often discussed as students but which I have not yet seen in any of the management text books. For rather obscure reasons it became known as Jardin's Principle, and the more I study organisations the more I think that its time in management has come.

Jardin's Principle is this: if you are trying to understand any subject or system, your level of understanding will pass through three stages.  To start with, the way that you see and describe a system will be simplistic ie over-simplified, then it will become complicated but ultimately it will become simple again:

Simplistic > Complicated > Simple

There are three other words that also fit into Jardin's model:

Obvious, Sophisticated, Profound

Jardin often applies in scientific research, where what start as simplistic models become more and more complex in order to incorporate all of the anomalies. Then finally somebody like Einstein produces a unifying formula that once again simplifies the whole subject, yet in a profound way.

However, Jardin's principle also appears to operate in every other walk of life, particularly in fields which have an elite, sophisticated image: art, wine-tasting and literature, for example. The film "Educating Rita" with Julie Walters and Michael Caine is all about Jardin's Principle. Rita, a Liverpool hairdresser who wants to learn about literature, starts with a refreshing but simplistic approach to the subject, which her tutor, who has a profound and simple understanding, greatly appreciates. Their relationship gets strained however when Rita moves into the middle level of the Jardin model, adopting the sophisticated language and mannerisms of the other students.

Management, too, has acquired a sophisticated image, so it should be no surprise that Jardin appears there frequently. The young recruit at a company produces ideas that are fresh, but he naively fails to appreciate the constraints of the business. He uses relatively simple language and is unlikely to write anything longer than one page. He doesn't yet understand business jargon, so he says what he sees. As he acquires more experience, and perhaps an MBA, his ideas become more sophisticated. His reports become filled with concepts like "industry transformation architecture", "performance gaps" and "interface communication". But when our rising star finally reaches the top, suddenly simplicity and profound insight return. The Chief Executive ignores the constraints of the business and sets the new vision. And he demands that all reports should be in Plain English and on one sheet of paper only.

Jardin's Principle would be interesting if it just stopped there. However, even more important are Jardin's 'Caveats', which show that the principle is not quite as simple as it looks. There are five of them:

1. It is hard to differentiate between what is 'simple and profound' and what is 'simplistic and obvious'. Take the following statements, for example. Did they come from a management  guru or  from Eric, the man  who  did  the work on my garden?

a) "Water is needed for all living things"

b) "Remember to sharpen the saw"

c) "When planning a pavement, first consider its drainage".

The answers are: a) Guru - Edward de Bono, Handbook for the Positive Revolution, b) Guru - Stephen Covey , Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and c) Eric.

2. Those at the 'sophisticated/complicated' level believe that there is no higher level than theirs - in other words you have to be sophisticated to understand fully. Rather than quoting a pompous management paper (there are too many to choose from) here is a description of The Beatles' song "She Loves You" from the Grove Dictionary of Music: " ... with its duple metre, almost hypnotic beat, pentatonic melody, 32-bar song form and tonic-mediant tonal relationship, its text concerns adolescent love, and has a quasi-ritualistic 'yeah, yeah, yeah' refrain." None of this is wrong, but did any of it pass through John and Paul's minds when they wrote the song?

3. You are probably wrong about the level of Jardin that you are at.This is like the old adage that the average man is one who thinks he isn't average. People tend to be very bad at assessing their own wisdom. The most profound ideas in a brainstorming meeting will will often come from the junior member of staff who feels he is only stating the obvious.

4. In order to reach the profound level of understanding you usually pass through the other two levels first. This is why we are prepared to sit listening to business gurus stating the seemingly obvious at us. We are confident that if we scratch the surface there is substance underneath, although with some speakers I have heard, I have serious doubts.

5. Unless you have a profound understanding of a subject, you will either over-complicate or over-simplify it. This is one reason why a lot of management philosophies ultimately die out: not that they were wrong, but simply that they were misinterpreted and corrupted by pompous or naive disciples.

There is one final twist in Jardin that to me gives it its greatest beauty. Jardin's principle is self-referential. In other words, Jardin itself is either simple and profound or simplistic and obvious, and philosophers are divided on the issue as the first caveat predicts they would be.

Jardin explains the natural tendency of those in management schools to make life sound complicated. After all, who but the very brave wants to be labelled as being simplistic, even if they know that what they really have is profound and simple wisdom? We all admire the child who saw that the Emperor had no clothes. But which of us dares to be that child?