Organizational complexity is strangling innovation, productivity, and engagement. As companies grow, they typically add more structures, reporting relationships, communication channels, processes, and rules. The reach of these organizational tentacles has resulted in many groups becoming lost in the bureaucracy.
The time is ripe to crush complexity and simplify work. But simplifying is not easy. It is a lot easier to add complexity, like new structures, processes, and rules, than it is to strip something down to its core to deliver the intended function. Based on our experience, an effective simplification approach consists of three steps: get clear on purpose; organize; and reduce.
There has to be a clear sense of the strategy, mission, and vision so you can begin to remove things that are not useful. This is why a strong corporate communications program is vital: a good one can crystallize a company’s strategy, mission, and vision. The communications capture attention and distill complex information into simple points via pictures, videos, stories, and metaphors.
When this is missing, people lose sight of or are unsure about what is most important; they are left to blindly adhere to their manager’s instructions vs. being able to think and act for themselves. An understanding of strategic context is the first step in simplifying anything.
Some questions that help clarify purpose are:
- What does success look like?
- What is the best outcome?
- What will deliver the greatest value?
Once the strategic context has been established and key objectives are known, work can begin on organizing the chaos. A comprehensive picture of the current state, whether it is how work is done, content in a document, or possible features for a product, should be obtained. One good way to complete this task is by using the design thinking method of putting yourself in others’ shoes vs. simply crunching data. When the information is collected, themes can be extracted and used to organize the minutiae.
Some questions to help with organizing are:
- What are the themes?
- Can the themes be organized by relative strategic importance?
- Can you assess the degree of ease in removing or integrating non-core components?
Once you have the groupings or themes and understand the goal, the next intuitive step is to prioritize, reduce and remove non-essential things. This task is not easy. To some people, it can feel counterintuitive to remove detail, functionality or options. It can feel like something is being dumbed down. However, if something takes a couple of hours of study to understand—even if it is, in theory, a good design—it will never take hold.
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the French writer, said it nicely: “Perfection is reached not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” Key questions that can help reduce something complex to its core are:
- What is most strategically important?
- What is least important and easy to remove?
- How can non-core elements be redesigned?
Reducing things to make something simple often means reducing function. The key is to reveal and focus on the few most important functions. It is helpful to have experience and expertise in certain areas, such as organization design, strategy, design thinking, change management, and Lean Six Sigma, but one other capability is vital: common sense.
About the Author: Jesse Newton is the author of “Simplify Work; Crushing Complexity to Liberate Innovation, Productivity and Engagement.” He is the founder and CEO of Simplify Work, a global management consulting firm.