Friggin’ Obvious in 1916

Accountability Books Productivity


Story: Our Company Chair is a very wise and accomplished man, perhaps a bit of a curmudgeon, and full of insight based on years of doing the hard work of the hard work. One of his trigger points is complexity. If someone presenting to the board does so in a web of tangled nonsense, the potential of you-know-what hitting the fan is likely. As I come to know him more, I better appreciate his love of the obvious and simple. I also better understand that the Chair’s philosophical management bible is largely based on a book called Obvious Adams, by Robert Updegraff, which was first published in 1916! Wow, and why? (Obtain a free digital copy here). 

Key Point: If I critically examine my life’s work, the more simple and obvious the initiative, the better the outcome. The more complex my ideas or approach, the less accessible and effective. I wish I would have had a “simple and obvious” coach my entire career. What would the Obvious Adams book say to better guide you and me in becoming more obvious and simple?

“5 Tests of the Obvious:

  • The problem when solved will be simple, and when found will be obvious
  • Does it make sense to the simple direct and generally unsophisticated mind of the public? If you can’t easily explain it to your “mother,” it maybe too complex?
  • Put it down on “paper.” Can you write it down and explain it in plain english in three paragraphs or less?
  • Does it explode in people’s minds? People ideally say, “why didn’t I think of that?”  
  • Is the time right? Timing, like in most things in life, is so important.

5 Creative Approaches to the Obvious:

  • What is the simplest possible way of doing it?
  • Supposed the whole process/thing were reversed?
  • What would the public’s vote on it be?
  • What opportunity is being overlooked because no one has bothered to develop it?
  • What are the special needs of the situation?”

Today we have so much cool, breakthrough technology, arguably way more brain power, and certainly more knowledge than in 1916. Still, the great inventions or reimagined work are often so darn simple, and in retrospect, very obvious. Take Uber, Airbnb, and even Snapchat as current examples. Yet, in organizations I often see problems addressed with total complexity. And while I believe management concepts like Lean, Agile, etc. are helpful, they can also become counterproductive when process and taxonomy overwhelm common sense. People get so hung up on form they can forget to ask the best questions, like those published in 1916.

Personal Leadership Moves:

  1. Be confident and humble enough to fiercely challenge, based on the concepts of simple and obvious. (Does not mean simplistic).
  2. If your or my idea takes a long winded slide deck or PowerPoint to explain it, be self-critical and suspicious as to whether we have done enough work on it.
  3. Be wary of fancy language, overly technical jargon and/or so called solutions that seem to make the audience feel stupid. If you and I can’t understand it, we know what’s stupid… And it’s not us.
  4. Get a “simplicity coach.” P.S. – It might be your mother.

Simply Obvious in Personal Leadership,


One Millennial View: I remember in journalism school we were encouraged to write as simply and briefly as possible, because studies showed that the average media consumer read at about a 6th grade level. That might be surprising to those who like to dive into academic journals. Simple, concise, and to the point is statistically what people want. A strict and great professor of mine once told me, “if an article is more than 800 words, it better f*!$ing sing.” How’s that for obvious and simple advice?

– Garrett

Edited and published by Garrett Rubis