The complexity of simplicity

Someone suggested that as one of my last four blog pieces – I am stopping writing them at the end of this year – that I write about simplicity. I'm not sure what the reason was for this so don't have any clues on a focus. But because it was in my mind I started noticing things which could give me a slant on the topic.

For example, I got an email this week from someone saying: "I know we say this on an almost daily basis but we've got to try to start pushing people away from the traditional mode of doing things!… Senior meeting first, month later a further meeting to get to the nitty gritty of the offer, then back to head honcho(s) for approval, likely further discussion, maybe a million papers/proposals in between!"

The ongoing need for head honcho 'sign off' and time taken to work through the many iterations and control points referred to in the email above are probably good candidates for simplification. A simplified process could drive decisions down to the lowest level, achieve good enough rather than un-needeed excellence, etc.

An email from someone else challenged the complexity of the recruitment process, 'which is slow and inflexible', and enquired how it could be simplified in terms of the forms required to complete, the interview framework, and the time taken to get from position approval to candidate in post.

And then I got another email asking what employment policies I would like to see in place and listing eight ideas. That particularly struck me as three years ago I wrote a blog piece that took a look at types of policies and the case for consciously reviewing them and retiring those now irrelevant or constricting. I noted then that both President Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron had taken up the cudgels against red tape. Cameron setting up the 'red tape challenge' and Obama issuing an executive order both initiatives aimed at simplification. The UK's red tape challenge is still alive and making good statements. In January 2014 David Cameron announced that 'The coalition is planning to scrap or amend more than 3,000 regulations from the "serious to the ridiculous".' That's excellent news. However, in most instances I've observed that making statements about simplification is a whole lot easier than getting to the goal of simplicity: maybe my observations are flawed.

But I don't think they are. Each week I read Leo Babauta's blog. He writes on Zen habits which 'is about finding simplicity in the daily chaos of our lives'. This week's is 5 Questions to Simplify Your Life During the Holidays. If I wanted to simplify my life over the holidays how would I answer Leo's question three, 'What can you limit yourself to?' He tells readers to, 'Take a minute to look at the various areas of your life right now, and see if you can limit each one: have a limit on your tasks each day, a limit on meetings or parties, a limit on requests you can say yes to, a limit on how much time you spend on email or social media, a limit on how many hours you work. Set arbitrary limits and force yourself to make choices.'

In fact, I am trying to achieve work simplicity by 'limiting work in progress' – the lovely Kanban phrase. It's not an easy task to determine what aspects to limit and what to focus on because it involves conversations and discussions with various parties each with 'their own intentions, prejudices and assumptions' and with 'power relations [that] are often significantly skewed in favour of those in formal authority'. (For more on the topic of organisational complexity and leadership read Chris Rodgers, excellent paper Taking organisational complexity seriously).

If individuals find it hard to achieve simplicity in their lives how easy is it for an organisation – comprising multiple individuals to simplify? Ron Ashkenas, a Harvard Business Review blogger, argues that 'Over the past several years we have heard hundreds of managers talk about the negative impact of complexity on both productivity and workplace morale. … Agreeing on complexity as a problem is one thing, but doing something about it is quite another.' He then offers a 'simple' seven-step simplification strategy.

What I enjoyed about the seven-steps was that like Leo Babautas's 5 questions each is a complex task to address. Step 3, for example tells us to 'Prioritize, prioritize, prioritize. One of the keys to simplification is to figure out what's really important (and what's not), and continually reassess the priority list as new things are added.'

How easy is that? Choosing what to limit myself to is not a one or two minute exercise. Scale this up – how does a leadership team, aiming to prioritize, 'figure out what's really important'? Usually it's a fairly arduous and sometimes acrimonious process of making trade-offs, assessing risks, balancing stakeholder needs/wants/interests and deciding what compromises might have to be made: it's not a rational process it's much more on the lines of 'ongoing conversations and interactions through which organisation is enacted ahead of the conventional focus on the formal 'trappings' of organisation such as policies, systems and procedures, etc.' (Chris Rodgers again)

Designer, John Maeda, wrote a book 'Simplicity' describing 10 laws (reduce, organize, time, learn, differences, context, emotion, trust, failure, the one) which have gained a huge following. It's worth a read because the ten simple words and a short (100 page) book mask a journey during which Maeda 'discovered how complex a topic simplicity really is.'

Steve Jobs voiced a similar view 'simple can be harder than complex. You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple but it's worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.'

What's your view on simplicity is it also complexity? Let me know.