Simplicity – are you being too complex for success?

By 26th August 2016Leadership

Albert Einstein

Recently I have been reflecting on why some leaders and managers shy away from simplicity.  Why do some people find it necessary to use complex language and unnecessary business speak?  What I am talking about is nicely represented in this gloriously complex statement “to support our strategic direction we need to proactively utilise scalable methods of empowerment”.  If you are trying to engage people, then confusing them with how you communicate is guaranteed to have the opposite effect.  They simply won’t listen let alone act. 

Knowledge is power

Some leaders or managers appear to need to show their expertise using complex language (the most popular time appears to be with their own superiors who they are keen to impress) and they seem to believe complex language or complex ideas or solutions which only they “really” understand demonstrates their knowledge and expertise.  In short, they believe that complexity is synonymous with sophistication and savvy and they believe staff stating “you are obviously on another level. I don’t even get what you are saying” is a sign of their superior knowledge.

My own personal experience goes completely against this theory in as much as the highest level leaders I have worked with often dislike intensely any “business speak” and complexity and they themselves strive for simplicity.   Indeed, these leaders want to talk to staff who are doing the work every day to listen to their ideas and experiences because staff willingly share their knowledge and ideas and frequently have the simplest ideas and solutions.   They are not interested in power or keeping ideas to themselves to make themselves “look good” – they just want to make their day to day work as effective and efficient as possible.

Organisational complexity impacts a simplicity mind-set

Does your organisation have a complex set-up?  [Take a look at your org charts, processes, tool/systems, product/service portfolios etc.].   Staff are not working deliberately to create complexity but if they work in a complex world their behaviours, decisions, and actions encourage complexity.    You can engage efforts to address the complex organisational set-up but it’s more critical to start to address the mindset of the staff within the organisation if you really want to simplify.  The words, actions and behaviours or leaders and managers are the most effective way to shift to a simplicity mind-set and therefore culture of an organisation.

I have had experience of working in organisations that focused on simplifying processes but without a parallel effort to change to a simplicity mind-set.  As a consequence, a number of years down the line we revisited the process simplification efforts again because the complexity of the organisational structure and the approach of staff was not changed and processes once again grew complex.  When I took on accountability for change management at my last company I was told by the Global Head of the group “organisations don’t change – people do” and that in itself has to be the key to successfully adopting sustained simplicity.

Simplicity brings solutions but it’s not easy

The word “simple” itself makes it seem easy. But there is great difficulty in keeping things uncomplicated.  Simplicity and clarity requires significant effort and taking the time to address complexity is far from easy.

The simpler the solution, the easier it will be to explain, the likelier that staff will understand it, and the greater the chance they will be able to implement it.   No one can implement what they do not understand.

One key focus for leaders and managers is to inspire and motivate those around them.  Staff become inspired when they can see how they can help, when there is no fear of making suggestions and when they believe they will be successful or not be criticised if they fail.  None of these proactive actions can start without a clear understanding.  Complex situations, processes and language shut down staff engagement but by keeping things simple you open up a world of opportunity that people are motivated to influence.

Simple Questioning

Complex situations make it difficult to ask questions and without new questions there will be no new answers.  I was once involved in a project to try and simplify a 6 stage staff performance review process.  Lots of research was undertaken to look at different models and new ideas and approaches and in the end the project team created different scenarios for review.  The project was so complex it required pre-reading before the actual proposal presentation and then 2 hours of intense data exchange.  At the end of the presentation a number of questions came from the leaders around the table where more data was shown and information exchanged.  The CEO sat quietly for about 20 minutes and then asked the presenter to go back to slide 3 – a flow chart of the current 6 stages.  His question was simple “why don’t we just stop doing it?”.  During months of work the project team had taken something very complex and never considered the simplest questions because if we had then the outcome would have been very different.  Always start with simple questions.

Simple Storytelling

Simplicity and integrity are highly inter-related so when leaders tell simple and honest stories staff never have to wonder what’s on a leader’s mind or worry about any underlying message.  Simple stories make connecting with others easy and staff relate better to things they easily understand.  You don’t have to “cast” yourself in the story – I often used my grandmother when I wanted to tell a story.  Here’s an adaptation from one of my stories to emphasize simplicity:

I went to visit my 92-year-old Gran recently and I found myself intrigued by her life and the simplicity of her world…… I noticed a pile of yellow post-it stickers on her kitchen worktop. They were notes written by either my Mum or my Aunt – all different instructions. Which food to eat on what day, how to use the washing machine, who would be coming when, which tablets to take – lots of them but all neatly stuck together in a single pile. I asked my Gran what they were and she said my Mum and my Aunt seemed to feel more comfortable if they posted notes all over the place but she found them confusing and they got in the way so she took them down when they went and put them back when she knew they were coming. A good example of a complex process that was being implemented by two people (who believed it was being followed) but which was of no use or interest to the end user who craved simplicity.

Put simply

If you can’t explain something to your grandmother so she can ask questions – it’s too complicated!

Happy simplification to you all.

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