Leonardo da Vinci, perhaps the greatest of the Renaissance masters, once observed, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” While da Vinci had incredible foresight, he probably didn’t envision today’s business environment when he uttered those words more than 500 years ago.
While most CEOs would agree that simplicity in the workplace improves decision-making, productivity, customer service, and innovation, the sad reality is that continued pressure for growth – coupled with the need to generate new product and revenue streams in the face of rapidly changing technology and ever-shifting markets – inevitably seems to lead to increased business complexity.
Most CEOS recognize the detrimental effect complexity has on their business. They inherently understand that when faced with a complex, confusing workplace, their business teams tend to retreat into silos and focus exclusively on getting their specific jobs done, ignoring opportunities for collaboration. They also know that attempting to simplify their business by retrenching to a smaller portfolio of core products or services is likely to undermine the constant demand for growth.
That assessment was confirmed in a recent survey of business complexity conducted by the Harvard Business Review (HBR). In the HBR survey, 86% of all respondents reported that decision-making and business processes had become so complex in their companies that it was inhibiting their ability to grow. A quarter of those interviewed admitted that their attempts to manage complexity had failed. The conclusion? Too few business leaders have learned how to manage business complexity in a way that simultaneously enables them to improve market share, innovation, and profitability.
So what can a CEO do about complexity? In today’s interconnected, technology-enabled world, complexity is a game that business leaders cannot afford to ignore. Instead, complexity must be acknowledged and proactively managed.
To that end, CEOs need to recognize that the way they view complexity is not likely to be the same way their workers view complexity. Complexity for the CEO has very little in common with what their managers and their work teams experience. In order to begin the task of managing complexity, it is essential to look at how complexity is experienced throughout the entire organization.
Similarly, it is important for CEOs to understand the difference between the symptoms of complexity and its causes. While many companies complain about problems such as too much bureaucracy, too many meetings, and slow decision-making, it is important to recognize that these are merely symptoms of a bigger problem. To get to the heart of the complexity problem, CEOs must address both the symptoms and the reasons why these symptoms are occurring.
Finally, CEOs need to admit that ignoring complexity and carrying on as normal won’t make the problem go away. Company leadership simply can’t leave workers to fend for themselves in the vain hope that they will somehow figure out a way to deal with complexity. They won’t. In fact, they are likely to simply focus on their specific work and ignore everything else. And that will open the door to on-the-job frustration, low morale, and increased employee turnover. Instead, leadership needs to tackle these issues head-on.
CEOs can start fighting complexity by focusing on their organization’s business processes. Nearly 70% of the respondents to the Harvard Business Review survey ranked the flexibility and agility to change business processes when needed as the most important factor in managing complexity.
Innovation is a human-driven team sport that businesses sometimes make overly complex by requiring staff to follow a 17-step process to request a password change or order stationery, for example. Organizations can begin to remove complexity by simplifying processes and making them work for – instead of against – their teams.
Here are four key steps companies should take to simplify their business processes:
First, businesses should use a process platform as its single point of truth for process information. To do that, a collaboration point and platform for “how we do things here” should be created. This will serve to effectively capture the critical process know-how of the company, which represents the key first step toward exposing the level of unnecessary complexity that exists.
Second, it is essential for companies to make their process knowledge simple for teams to use. Process information must be engaging, user-friendly, and useful. Organizations must consider the needs of each team when deciding the format in which to present process flows. Keep it simple and provide additional detail if and when needed. Teams will embrace process knowledge as a change enabler only if that information is easy to understand and easy to use.
Next, it is important for businesses to assign accountability for business processes to specific “owners.” A healthy process improvement culture depends on empowered process owners who are willing and able to step up and take responsibility. If business teams don’t feel they own their processes, their ability and belief that they have a right to change processes in order to reduce complexity will be limited.
Finally, companies must work to develop a culture where process owners have the authority – and the mandate – to simplify their processes. Process owners need to know they have the right to try, and sometimes fail, in their efforts to improve and innovate. This sort of message can only flow from the top, from the chief process owner, through process champions, to process owners.
There are no short-cuts to eliminating complexity. Unfortunately, it’s not enough for CEOs to just “think simple”. It’s by ignoring the problem, by failing to be intentional about keeping the business simple, that things can get out of hand. So be intentional. Invest in simplifying processes and process communication to empower business teams to drive change, simplify their work, and find better, faster ways of doing things.