Finding Elegance in a Handful of Nails

November 2, 2009

By Michael B Tatham, President of The Tatham Group

I started working in the company at what I thought was the lowest level – producing training materials and processing customer orders. What I learned in this role were the key components to business success:

  1. There is no role more important than the one that services the customer.
  2. The more simple a process, the more elegant the experience.
  3. Everyone plays a critical role in the company is the organization is integrated.

More importantly, I learned the critical success factor for our company over the past 40 years: our human nature leads us toward complexity. It is the desire to please, challenge or prove worthiness; the creation of rules, roles and processes to make ourselves feel special; the fear of losing control that creates a convoluted path to the customer receiving what they need; inability to accept and admit failure in order to learn from it; and many more. Since birth, our environment has reinforced these behaviors making it difficult for us to change to an environment of success that requires less resources to maintain.

As I struggled not to leave my mark on the process, I was introduced to an experiential exercise that demonstrates the importance of simplification and the elegance of such solutions. It starts with a handful of nails with one of them hammered into a small square block of wood. The object of the exercise is to balance the remaining 11 nails on the one sticking out of the wooden block. You cannot use any binding materials, props or additional support. Easy, right? Surprisingly, not.

Immediately the participant is determined to succeed just by being challenged to accomplish the task set out. Ninety-nine percent of participants will search for a complex solution that no one else could have thought of and therefore be deemed the hero. Several, if not all, of the examples of human nature above begin to surface. The problem with this mindset, especially in the corporate world, is that unnecessary time and resources are being used to come up with what usually ends up as a complex solution to a complex problem. These types of solutions are not easily repeatable and require a high degree of skill to implement.

It is never the default to look for the simplest solutions to complex problems. Once the easy solution is presented to the nail challenge it is amazing how the hero mentality is quickly deflated and the participant humbled. It is almost a disappointment that more is not required. That can’t be it? It’s too easy. There needs to be something more.


Since I took over the family business, I’ve worked hard to continue its success. My father worked far too long and hard to have his legacy destroyed now. My focus is to make sure not to lose sight of the fundamentals. Stay simple and effective. We will continue to develop new and creative ways, through experiential learning and coaching, to help individuals and organizations move away from the current overworked, stressed out, hero environments to equally or more successful simplified ones.

We use our common sense approach to business innovation in order to come up with solutions to even the most complex business problems. How do we start to change the mindset of a person raised in a society that doesn’t encourage this elegant way of thinking in just two days? How do we get them to challenge all that they are comfortable with and sustain a new way of acting in weeks, not years? The answers are elegantly simple.

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