Why a stripped-back approach and a deep understanding of function is the most graceful way to empower people
I’ve been aiming to follow the formula in the title of this post for as long as I can remember but it was first put into words for me by the brilliant Derek Jackson and Fran Burgess who are now, unfortunately for the rest of us, retired from their training work.
Efficient + Effective = Elegant
Fran and Derek sketched it out on their whiteboard, talking about how:
- Efficiency – working with speed and economy; would combine with
- Effectiveness – being capable of producing the desired result; to produce
- Elegance – simultaneously excellent and graceful.
This state of elegance was what I’d been after in my work, well, for ever!
I remembered a couple of occasions, back when I had a proper job, when I’d come close to this. Leading a team handling some really complex and high-pressure tasks where we were really getting great results with limited resources and where it’d felt just … easy.
Looking at Fran and Derek’s whiteboard in that classroom, I wasn’t really seeing their notes, but was remembering that experience at work which had felt – and I say this as a 6’2″, 100kg clumsy person – like doing ballet!
My wife is a designer and this combination of Efficiency + Effectiveness = Elegance is something you often come across in the worlds of design and architecture.
At the time of my studies with Derek and Fran, the Millau Viaduct – which is featured at the top of this post – was just being completed by Foster and Partners. This stunning bridge, still the world’s tallest at the time of writing, is part of the French autoroute from Paris to Béziers across the Massif Central, crossing the River Tarn between two high plateaux. In describing the bridge, Foster talks about a fascination with the relationship between function, technology and aesthetics in a graceful structural form. Foster and Partners said that they had a choice between two possible structural approaches: (1) to cross the river; or (2) to span the 2.46 kilometres from one plateau to the other. They wrote that although geologically it was the river that created the landscape, it is very narrow at that point, and so it was the second option, to go plateau to plateau, that provided the most economical and elegant solution.
One of my favourite writers, Ernest Hemingway, describes how his writing process is similar in that he would ruthlessly go back over his work and remove “whatever didn’t need to be there”. He talked about how he would sometimes strip away the unnecessary almost to the point where readers would need to invent some of the details for themselves. Hemingway’s writing, for me anyway, has a kind of aliveness I feel can almost touch, whether it’s in a small but “clean and well-lighted” cafe, or hiking over a Spanish hill with a heavy pack.
I love this kind of stripping back and removing the unnecessary. Or as Foster might put it, reading the landscape well enough to see what combination of technology and aesthetics would provide the right function in the most economical and elegant structure. This approach is what I want for my coaching work. It’s why I’ve had to boil down and boil down what I know until the real essence appears.
This is also why I don’t introduce a complex model of how to do something, when a simple coaching question will get the same result. Instead of a slow, laborious trudge, it’s just being sufficiently curious about how somebody might achieve something to begin unleashing their potential – and not showing-off mine.
It’s also why there are lots of times when I don’t even need to ask that simple coaching question. In the right relationship, with the right degree of trust and respect, I often find that a simple shift of my head or a slightly raised eyebrow is as good as asking the most brilliant question. Sometimes, I even think my eyebrow is better at asking the right question than my brain is!
The best thing about the Millau Viaduct isn’t that it’s a brilliant piece of architecture. It isn’t Foster and Partners that are making the crossing. The best thing about that Viaduct is that it enables you and I to cross from one high plateau to the next. And to enjoy the experience and to feel alive.
As usual, please leave me a comment if they’re still open below, or tweet me @NickRobCoach.