Easy is the new hard. No, really.

So there you have it. The all-singing, all-dancing, everything’s-connected National Health Service IT system is to be ‘dramatically scaled back’ (i.e. quietly scrapped). Mind you, I could have told you that. For two reasons. First, I got a bad feeling about three years ago, when I did some copywriting on the subject. The background reading (all 500 pages of PDFs) was grimly compelling. A bit like watching a road accident that’s about to happen but not being able to do anything about it. Front-line staff weren’t behind it. It was ambitious, fiendishly complicated and promised the earth. Mind you, it also cost the earth. Back then, my bedtime reading suggested anything between £6bn (€6.6bn/$9.8bn) and £30bn (€33bn/$48.9bn). To date, it’s come in at £12bn (€13.2bn/$19.6bn). My second inkling came when my doctor tried to use the system. She didn’t want to do anything complicated – just to book an appointment. But it was complicated, as I’ve written about previously (High tech or hype tech?). And in the end, I bypassed the system and used the telephone to make the hospital appointment myself. Not good.

Easy peasy lemon ketchup

The trouble with big projects is that they’re big. No one person can get their head around all the individual pieces, so they project is compartmentalised. And that means it very quickly becomes fragmented, complicated and disconnected. A couple of years ago, I boarded a train at London’s King’s Cross station in the rush hour. I took an outside seat in a group of four. In the two seats opposite were a hassled-looking middle manager and her shiny-suited sidekick. As the train pulled out, she flipped open her folder and peered at a spreadsheet printout. “You know that consultant, the one with the gold-rimmed glasses, in Peter’s section – you know, whatshisname?” she said hopefully. “Oh Graham, you mean,” he said. “What about him?” “Well,” she said, “he’s paid £900 a day and he’s been with us six months. Do we know exactly what he does?” I did a quick mental calculation, and came up with a figure of close on £100,000 (€110,000/$163,000). “Hmm, ” said the shiny suit. “Not really. I mean, not exactly. Erm, no.” “We should find out,” she said, lazily snapping the folder shut, “one of these days.” Or tomorrow, I thought. Or right now. Because that’s my tax money (yes, they were civil servants – couldn’t you tell?).

Easy does it

Difficult is easy: you do one thing, then another thing, and yet another. Each without reference to what came before. You add a bit here, and there. You spread responsibility among different groups, and patch holes as they appear. Issues are dealt with as they come in, not according to how important they are. And before you know it, you don’t know where you are. And neither does anybody else. And the result is organised, project-managed chaos. At £900 a day. So what’s the answer? If difficult is easy, what’s easy – difficult? Actually no. It’s easy – when you know how. Here are my top tips for keeping it simple, staying on top of things, and never losing sight of what’s important. And for leaving the office early (that’s the clincher, isn’t it?):
  • Keep a log of your day: and see how you really use your time. Important things should take priority, with urgent ones trumping them only if they’re also important.
  • Review your tasks, and update and re-prioritise each one every day. Or better still, at the beginning and end of every day.
  • Take stock: check where you are with a project regularly, and make course adjustments if you’re off-track.
  • Be realistic & honest: if you know you can’t achieve it, don’t say you can. If it’s too big to tackle, break it down into smaller, manageable chunks.
  • Peel off. Adding another layer to an already-complicated process just makes it more complicated. Instead, strip away the unnecessary layers and get back to basics.
  • Communicate. Tell people what you’re doing. Ask them what they’re doing. And if you’re the only one doing anything (like me) sit down and have a serious talk with yourself now and then.
  • De-junk. Recently, I threw out old clothes, LPs, clever-but-useless kitchen gizmos and anything I hadn’t used in a year. It felt so good (better than skinny, to paraphrase Kate Moss). Take the same ruthless approach to your work and you’ll feel supermodel-light in less than no time. Need it? No? Junk it. Move on.
Now wasn’t that easy?