managers removing complexity

Managers are the biggest hope for simplicity

How can managers remove complexity in organisations?

In the vast majority of organisations, the further ‘down’ the organisations you go, the more people there are. The more people there are, the more activity there is. The more activity there is, the more hours and money that is wasted on activity which simply shouldn’t exist. It’s a big problem. PwC research suggests that as much as 30% of frontline staff time is wasted on non-value activity1.

Productivity, or a lack of it, is on everyone’s lips at the moment. From the Chancellor to the Chief Exec, everyone wants an answer for improvement. Before pointing a finger or searching for a silver bullet, let’s consider something far more elementary.

Are employees in organisations clear on what work really matters? And do they know how this fits into the organisation’s big picture? For some roles this is obvious. A customer service agent knows they are responsible for customer retention and improving NPS. An oil rig machine operator knows the part they play in extracting oil from the sea before it makes its way to a refinery.

Unfortunately, it is rarely as cut and dry as this.

Kaplan and Norton found that a mere 7% of employees fully understand their company’s business strategies and what’s expected of them in order to help achieve company goals2. If people don’t know how what they do fits into the puzzle, are we surprised at the amount of non-value add activity?

It is the job of any manager to ensure their teams are crystal clear on what is important to the organisation and ensure that all effort is channelled here. The best managers create an environment for their teams to perform. They know what matters and they ensure focus here. Very simply, they make it easy for their teams to spend as much time as possible on activity which creates the most value. Obstacles, excuses and anything else which gets in the way is removed. And it’s well worth doing. Companies with the lowest levels of individual complexity (i.e. the ability to get things done) enjoy the highest returns of capital employed and invested capital3.

Everyone wins. Employees find meaning in their work. Leaders progress the right organisation priorities. As a result, shareholders get a higher return.

Sounds straightforward. Unfortunately, it’s rarely that easy a ride for managers

Firstly, managers who have progressed up through an organisation have almost certainly accepted that organisation’s norms. This almost always includes putting up with internal complexity. Before they can ingrain simplicity into their teams, they need to change the way they think and act themselves.

Secondly, managers are often complexity sponges. Internal complexity flows down the organisation from leaders and managers become the buffers. The bigger the pebble, the bigger the splash. Managing some levels of complexity is inevitable and even expected. But where they see obviously nonsensical complexity and activity coming from above, they need to call it out and push it back.

Finally, managers are taught to manage by encouraging activity. If they have worked in an organisation for long enough, they are conditioned to assume that being busy is a good thing. This need to be busy comes from the protestant work ethic entrenched in most western societies. The urge for more and more overpowers the idealism of simplicity.


What to do

Below are eight practical pointers managers can use to ensure their teams are working as simply as possible on the right things:

  1. Firstly, ensure team members know what your organisation does, your vision, your values and your strategic priorities. Make everyone you manage aware of how what they do contributes.
  2. Empower your people to constructively challenge internal complexity and the needless activity this creates. Reward and celebrate those who stop, or simplify.
  3. Be aware of your own complexity footprint. Continue to delegate activity to your team. But be aware of the impact of your requests. Do you know how much capacity is required to fulfil a task? What’s the outcome? Is it really required? If so, is it done in the simplest way?
  4. Be aware of the shadow you create. Your team will look to you for cultural clues. If you succumb to complexity or spend time on needless activity, the ‘follower effect’ means your team will probably follow suit.
  5. Liberate your teams from the two biggest internal complexity offenders – meetings and emails. Encourage your team to reduce time spent in meetings and on emails. Consider ideas such as meetings and email free Friday. See what happens.
  6. Revisit team priorities. Generally, people are trying to do more and more. Ensure your people are working on the most import, rather than urgent things. Be brave. Don’t be afraid to stop non-important activity altogether.
  7. Facilitate a Stop. brainstorm. Give your team permission to call out complexity they see outside of your team and in the wider organisation. Estimate what this costs the organisation and generate ideas to solve. Use this as input to a structured conversation with leaders.
  8. Lastly, keep talking about the need for simplicity and focus on the right activity. If you stop, complexity will prevail and you will be back to square one.

Did you know? In their excellent HBR article ‘Make Your Knowledge Workers More Productive’, Jordan Cohen and Julian Birkinshaw found that the average knowledge worker could gain a day a week by stopping low value activity4.

With 20% more capacity, what could your team achieve?


1 PwC, Fact vs Fiction, 2014

2 Robert S. Kaplan and David P. Norton, “The Strategy-Focused Organization,” Harvard Business School Press, 2001

3 McKinsey & Co, Cracking the Complexity Code, 2014

4 Jordan Cohen and Julian Birkinshaw, ‘Make Your Knowledge Workers More Productive’, 2013