Leaders can bring simplicity to life as an idea, by mirroring the behaviours of people who are great simplifiers.
How can your leaders start to change the behaviours of their people, so that simplicity becomes part of the cultural software or DNA of your organisation?
We have identified six behaviours that simplifiers exhibit day to day. By role modelling the six simplicity behaviours, visibly living them day to day, leaders can start to shift the culture of their organisation.
Overview of the six behaviours
- Focus: The ability to identify and prioritise the things that will have the biggest impact on success, to the exclusion of everything else.
- Clarity: The ability to provide a well-defined direction and explain (sometimes complex) ideas in a way that can be easily understood by the majority of people.
- Collaboration: The willingness to work constructively and openly with other teams/people to achieve shared goals.
- Courage: The bravery to challenge harmful complexity where ever it exists and stop activities that do not have value.
- Pragmatism: The ability to identify a simple, realistic and actionable solution to a problem, over a more complex option. Openness to using an existing or standardised approach to solving the problem.
- Empowerment: The willingness to trust a person or a team, giving them the power and support to do something themselves, without micromanaging.
The ability to identify and prioritise the things that will have the biggest impact on success, to the exclusion of everything else.
Lack of focus creates volume complexity. Your organisation becomes overwhelmed by the sheer number of things it is trying to do. The important projects/activities are not completed brilliantly or fast because many smaller projects or activities distract resources and mental firepower from your organisation.
Leaders of simplicity are relentlessly focused on the big stuff. They are brilliant at working out what really matters and courageous enough to focus only on the most important things, to the exclusion of everything else. Whether it is a list of projects, their products/services, key customers, or stages in a process, they are always questioning what really matters and what adds value, making sure their energy is focused on the important things only. They are also reducers. Simplifiers are brave at cutting out the peripheral and non-value added activities that distract them and others from focusing on the big stuff. They keep teams, processes, meetings, documents, projects and organisations as small as possible.
Related to this, they have a talent for problem-shrinking: they understand that big problems are like world hunger – just too big to solve in one jump. But if they can reduce hunger in one country, they can then move to the next. So simplifiers look for ways to make a problem small enough to solve.
The ability to provide a well-defined direction and explain (sometimes complex) ideas in a way that can be easily understood by the majority of people.
Lack of clarity leads to confusion about your strategy or the direction you need to go in (aimlessness) which creates non-value added activities, competing goals and parallel projects. Lack of clarity also means it is hard for people to understand important ideas/concepts that are essential for them to do their work well.
Simplifiers are a rare breed of people who always bring clarity to a muddled situation or project. As the world gets more and more complex, people find it increasingly hard to work out what to do and difficult to identify and focus on value-generating activities. Effective leaders need to be able to clarify things, so that their people can navigate through the complexity around them, identifying where to focus and how to win.
Where complexity cannot be removed, they are great direction-setters. They always provide clear direction, checking that everyone understands where they are heading and why. They understand that people first need to align on what needs to be done, before working out the best way to execute a plan. That’s why great simplifiers won’t start talking about how things will be done until everyone is 100% clear and agrees on what exactly they are trying to achieve. As leaders, they set a very simple, clear direction and help people when they get stuck – but they trust their experts to work out the “how” on their own. They know that sometimes you need to ‘go slow, to go fast’. They take their foot off the gas pedal until everyone is on board. You can only go fast when everyone is pointing in the same direction. In setting a clear and inspiring path for their organisation, they enable their teams to reach extraordinary heights.
Clarifiers can also see the most salient points and explain something complex in a simple and concise way. When they summarise key issues, they manage to do so in a short paragraph. They bring seemingly diverse points together to reveal simple truths. In so doing, they make things simple for other people to understand, which makes it easier for everyone to move forward.
Simplifiers make it easier for people to navigate the complexity. Apple’s products are a great example of this, highly complex beneath the surface, but at the user level they have worked tirelessly to make sure the product interface is simple and intuitive to use, so the complexity is ‘hidden’.
How do they achieve this? First of all, by being great visualizers. Simplifiers use images, diagrams and graphs to make things clearer – after all, a picture is worth a thousand words. They layer, organise and cluster information to help guide people through the complexity in the most logical and human way. Finally, they understand and appreciate how the power of storytelling can be used to simplify concepts and bring them to life.
The ability to work constructively and openly with diverse teams/people to achieve shared goals.
Poor collaboration dramatically increases co-ordination costs within large organisations, which slows down decision making, creates duplication of activity and disharmony. As cross team collaboration becomes difficult, the common reaction of managers and leaders is to introduce new co-ordination and control systems, to redesign their organisational structure, or to add in new committees and request even more management information, all of which create more complexity.
On the other hand, great simplifiers see when poor collaboration is causing inefficiency and will invest time in working out how to facilitate and reward effective collaboration. This is because they know that poor collaboration between people creates complexity. If we collaborate well, we don’t need excessive governance processes or endless meetings and committees. When we understand and value each other’s work, we can prevent duplication and ensure that our work helps other teams to look great. Then we can work together to make the whole company successful, not just our own team. If we trust each other, we don’t need excessive control systems to monitor and check up on people. This is why great simplifiers always facilitate cross-functional understanding and effective teamwork.
The bravery to challenge harmful complexity where ever it exists and stop activities that do not have value.
Lack of Courage: In big organisations, people are often rewarded for activity not outcomes, and for conforming with the organisation’s processes, structures and norms, even if these things create complexity. It takes courage to ask why, to call out complexity, to stop doing non-value added tasks and hold people accountable for reducing complexity.
Great simplifiers are always challenging complexity by asking themselves and others: “Is there a simpler way to achieve this outcome” or “How can we reduce complexity here?”
They are obsessively focused on simplicity as a way of working. They passionately believe that simplicity is an essential virtue with many hidden benefits. So they value simplicity as one of their guiding principles and trust that simpler will always be better than complex. They actively simplify things themselves, so others can see their belief in simplicity is authentic. In fact, they believe in simplicity so strongly they have the courage to challenge complexity wherever they see it, and the strength to fight it wherever it is.
The ability to identify a realistic and actionable solution to a problem, over a more complex option. Openness to using an existing or standardised approach to solving the problem.
People and organisations that are not pragmatic are likely to over-engineer, over-intellectualise, reinvent and tinker, all of which create harmful complexity. People who lack pragmatism look for clever or intellectually perfect solutions when there is a simpler way.
Leaders of simplicity are pragmatists. They intuitively know when roughly right is good enough, and only seek absolute perfection when it is essential to the success of the company. They are decisive because experience tells them that unmade decisions slow their team down dramatically. Pragmatists will happily ‘steal with pride’ taking existing ideas, products and processes from other teams, to use within their area of the business. Wherever possible they standardise processes, products, tools so that their people only need to learn one way of doing things and can learn from each other, They actively seek out and eradicate harmful duplication of effort. Why on earth would you do something twice, when resources are so scarce?
The willingness to trust a person or a team, giving them the power and support to do something themselves, without micromanaging them.
Lack of empowerment and trust increases complexity by adding bureaucratic control systems, layers of management and excessive reporting. It prevents those with the most understanding and knowledge from making decisions. It sucks the life out of people’s satisfaction at work, leads to fighting over ‘who gets what’, and prevents people from learning and developing into the future leaders of the organisation.
Simplifiers focus on the outcomes of work, rather than on the process of doing things. They actively look to increase people’s responsibility but ensure they are enabled to take on those tasks. They look for ways to support and develop their team so they can improve outcomes, without resorting to control systems and micromanagement. They take pride in seeing people around them develop and grow and are happy if their direct reports are better than they are at something.
TAKEAWAY: There are 6 simplicity behaviours that great simplifiers tend to exhibit in work and life. You can start to foster a culture of simplicity in your own team by adopting these behaviours yourself.
Originally written for SAP and published on Digitalist.