solve complexity

Before simplicity, be clear where you win

Every organisation suffers from complexity. 

As organisations grow, processes, systems, management reports and the volume of meetings grow too. Some complexity is needed. Some complexity should even be embraced. Complexity allows organisations to take advantage of new opportunities, to enter new markets and delight new customers. But make no mistake. Too much of it in the wrong places is a bad thing. It slows companies down and makes them unenjoyable places to work.  This means time and money is spent on things which don’t make a jot of difference to customers or shareholders.

When you ask a leader about complexity, their natural reaction is to look at external forces. The regulator demands more, Government policy is a nightmare, or the people buying what we sell have evolving needs. All of these are true.

But here is a statistic that will change the way all leaders think about complexity. Research by the Boston Consulting Group shows that internal complexity (defined by the amount of procedures, vertical layers, interface structures, coordination bodies and decision approvals needed) is growing six times faster than its external cousin1. Before looking out of the window, we should look under the sink.


Why is this the case?

As we have transitioned from the industrial to the knowledge age, the work we do has become much less tangible. In factories, organisations could readily and rapidly predict inputs, activity and outputs with relative certainty. In the age of the knowledge-based worker, work is much less visible. Less predictable processes and outcomes have resulted in managers wanting a tighter and tighter grip. This need for control has resulted in a lack of genuine empowerment and, with that, an industry of systems and governance to manage risk. This dramatic rise of internal obstacles means employee are spending more time than ever on low value activity. There is more focus on greasing the wheels than pedalling the bicycle forward.

Leaders see and feel this problem. Bain & Co. found that 60% of Executives felt that complexity is raising costs and hindering growth in their organisations2. More worryingly, IBM’s global trends report showed that 78% of leaders felt that levels of complexity will continue to grow significantly3.


What leaders should do

At its very simplest, leaders need to spend as much collective organisation time as possible on those things which really drive a competitive advantage. Those things which inspire your people, excite your customers and appease your shareholders. Time and money spent on needless internal activity is time and money not spent here.

Now for some good news. Like most internal challenges, leaders can do something about this. And your people will thank you for it if you do. Employees want to spend their working lives on meaningful work. They want to contribute to those things which define your organisation. They don’t want their working lives wasted on activity they perceive as unnecessary or pointless. If you give your people the tools and permission to challenge internal complexity without fear of retribution, your people will drive, rather than resist, the shift to simplicity.

And better news still, much of the unnecessary internal complexity can be challenged and removed without the need for another major programme, project or initiative. It’s the job of leaders to find and remove the most obvious nonsensical things which frustrate your people. It could be archaic email archive policies, a meeting about a meeting, an HR process which should be a decision made by a single person, or War & Peace style management reports which have ‘always been done this way’.

When you find and remove needless internal complexity three things happen. Firstly, your people become much more motivated and employee engagement will increase. Secondly, you invariably save time and money. And finally, you will create capacity for doing even more of what makes your organisation great.

Your best people will thank you. So will your shareholders. And so will your customers.



1 BCG, Six Simple Rules, 2014

2 Bain & Co., Management Tools & Trends, 2015

3 IBM, Capitalizing on complexity, 2010