Strategy: Simplicity

The art of achieving simplicity

Business leaders should consider how they can remove layers of unnecessary complexity within their organisations in order to improve operational processes and benefit from simplicity.

Those who travel by car on business will understand the frustration of sitting for long periods in a backlog of traffic caused by lengthy stretches of roadworks. To many, it might seem that the construction company undertaking the works gives little thought to the resulting chaos, and appears to pick the most inconvenient times to start their repairs. “Why don’t they work in the middle of the night when there is less traffic on the roads?” I used to think. It’s one of the reasons why I prefer to use the rail network, but there are times when taking my car is the most practical means of completing a full diary of meetings.

It was during one such delay while driving into London, sitting behind the wheel waiting less than patiently for the traffic to move, that I had time to consider the situation a little more carefully. Thinking that there had to be a better way for all concerned, I realised that things were far from straightforward. It’s easy for commuters to point the finger of blame at the construction company but there are numerous others involved in the process. For example, there is the local council whose territory the road in question passes through, emergency services such as ambulance, fire and police, the unions and, no doubt, a few others. All have to be part of the consultation process but since none of them reports to a single entity, the enormity of getting them singing from the same hymn sheet became obvious to me. Each one of these organisations has its own priorities, schedules and processes, so the chances of achieving some sort of close coordination was akin to a snowball surviving in hell.

As I thought more about this situation over the ensuing weeks, I realised that some of my business clients were facing a similar complexity within their own organisations, even though within these companies there was a single hierarchy. Often during periods of dramatic and sustained growth, new management structures are put in place to handle the increasing levels of responsibility. Managers develop processes that are designed to help their organisations scale up, plan and control corporate performance, and improve departmental and employee efficiencies. However, these processes can become very complex and quickly get out of control. It often becomes a case of the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing.

Take Apple, for example. The iPhone 4 was heralded as the absolute ‘must have’ new digital toy. Wonderfully designed, technologically one of the most advanced cell phones to come to market, all the trappings anyone could want at an affordable price; but the phone had a major glitch. Hold it in a certain way and the phone would experience signal degradation. The apparent reason was the antenna, which was built into the phone’s outer casing (instead of inside the handset): it didn’t work if it was held in what became colloquially termed the ‘death grip’. If the solution was to move your hand to a different position (as suggested by Apple), why didn't the company just move the location of the antenna? A simple case of the design team not coordinating their activities with the techno bods, even though they all lived under the same roof?

I have heard of a similar situation in a pharmaceutical company where, in an effort to reduce costs, the manufacturing department repackaged one of the company’s leading products—an anti-arthritic drug—using a less expensive and easier method of packaging. Within a year of the new packaging appearing in the dispensaries of retail pharmacies, the drug had lost considerable market share. Inadvertently, the packaging people had created a container that some patients couldn’t access. As a result, doctors prescribed the drug only to those patients who weren’t too severely handicapped. It goes without saying that the packaging design team did not intentionally set out to cause problems for patients; it was only trying to save money as instructed. However, had senior management discussed this issue first at an internal multidisciplinary meeting (something that rarely happened in this company), the situation probably would never have occurred. Trying to increase simplicity in this case ended up causing significantly greater levels of cost and a huge amount of frustration.

Following the global economic crash that started in 2008, the high levels of complexity developed in many corporations during the boom periods have become all too obvious. Some business leaders are struggling to come to terms with the levels of complexity within their companies, levels that are stifling recovery. However, there are many who have clearly identified what needs to be done and are stripping away complexity to make space for increasing levels of simplicity. In many cases, operational procedures are the first to be targeted, but increasing simplicity and reducing complexity is not the same as making things easy. In order not to get stuck in operational or systems ‘traffic jams’, managers must reduce organisational boundaries and encourage everyone in the company to proactively work together to reduce complexity.

No-one doubts that organisations need strict standards and cross-checks in their systems and processes, but they also need room for discretion, innovation, creativity and empathy—that very real human element which makes the most tremendous difference in successful companies. So, as a business leader, what is it that you need to do to create some degree of simplicity in a complex organisation?

• First and foremost, coordination, collaboration and communication are of fundamental importance. Radical simplification—the removal of unnecessary complexity—is not impossible but it does take a bit of hard work, thought and attention in real terms: real time and real language which is clear, accessible and direct. The technology available to us today has substantially increased our ability to work and communicate across virtually all boundaries, irrespective of any organisational processes. However, to be successful, the mindsets and behaviours of all concerned must positively change.

• There is a big difference between hearing and listening. You have to really listen to understand and identify what is most important to your staff, your customers and your company’s future.

• At meetings and strategy sessions, be an effective editor. Cut through the jargon, clutter and other unnecessary debris so that you can really focus on what’s important.

• Use your instincts. Keep things simple. If you think something is wrong or overly complex, it probably is. Automate, eliminate, delegate or hire.

• Eradicating complexity can often be seen by staff in a negative light. By celebrating at each milestone reached, irrespective of how big or small that progress may be or the form of the progress, it is something positive that everyone can hold onto.

There may be many other areas to address, but if you can achieve those outlined here, you will be in a much stronger position to capitalise on the opportunities that lie ahead.

Kate Tojeiro is an executive performance coach and MD of Xfusion.