Canvas Design Principles


Why have we designed the Canvas this way?

Over the last 4 years, we’ve been working with the likes of AXA, Time Inc. and Telefonica to simplify how they work. Our work has varied from diagnosing operating model complexity, to running simplicity hackathons, to equipping managers and leaders to simplify how their teams work.

We’ve also seen several organisations try and fail to embed simplicity into their culture. Below is a summary of what we’ve seen that makes the biggest difference. These lessons have all been designed into the Killing Complexity Canvas:


  • Define complexity. Clearly define what complexity is and what it is not. Organisations who look at complexity through a lens of what happens every day (i.e. activity) have more success.
  • Set a goal. Provide an aspiration and purpose for simplicity – don’t simplify for simplicity’s sake. The goals can be time (hours saved), monetary (hours -> cost), opportunities (what we can now do) or engagement (frustration levels).
  • Engage everyone. All employees feel complexity, (especially) not just Leaders – who can have a biased view. Invite people to share the specific complexity which frustrates them and gets in the way of their job.
  • Quantify complexity. If you can’t quantify complexity, you’ll be hard pressed to remove it. Use a simple method for valuing complexity. We recommend measuring time (hours/month), which can be converted to cost, and levels of frustration.
  • Understand real causes and conditions. Unless you uncover the real drivers of complexity, simplicity solutions will be short lived. We suggest using tools from Systems Thinking and Lean.
  • Simplify through Sprints. Don’t rely on a big transformation programme to eliminate complexity. Unless they’re specifically designed to kill complexity, transformation programmes can create everyday complexity. Get creative and re-design complexity for simplicity in short, sharp experiments. We suggest using inspiration from Design Thinking.
  • Everyone experiments. Empower people to disrupt their status quo, innovate and test simplicity in day-to-day work. Encourage everyone to ask: ‘how can this be simpler?’.
  • Measure impact, celebrate success. If you can quantify the pain of complexity, you can measure the benefits of simplicity. Sustain simplicity by rewarding those who make it so.
  • Change what people think and do. There’s a need to understand and change the mindsets, behaviours and habits which create complexity. Similarly, there are mindsets, behaviours and habits which safeguard simplicity.
  • And repeat… Simplicity is a perpetual process which needs to be repeated regularly. So, like you Spring clean your home, so you need to build simplicity into your Organisation’s rhythm.


Pragmatic, not perfect 

When developing the Canvas, we’ve consciously had to park some of the principles learnt from being trained as management consultants. For example, the nine complexity categories are not necessarily Mutually Exclusive and Collectively Exhaustive (MECE). A sales report in one organisation may be created in Salesforce (IT and Systems) but in another organisation covered verbally in a sales meeting (Meetings and Conference Calls).

Similarly, there are emerging schools of thought on how you define and solve for complexity. Traditional problem-solving methods such as Lean get micro and zone in on specific linear root causes, without always considering the much bigger picture.  The consequence is contained problem-solving where solutions to the local issue can cause bigger problems elsewhere, or real root causes are not fully understood.

Systems Thinking is growing in popularity. It encourages a much more holistic view of all factors (system conditions) contributing to a problem. Whilst it’s pure, it’s not always easy to define the system in scope, let alone identify and influence all factors. Additionally, Systems Thinking assumes some degree of causality. Systems conditions are rapidly changing and interconnected, so getting a useful, stable view of these conditions is difficult.

More recently, Complexity Thinking has emerged through academics such as Dave Snowden and Ralph Stacey. Complexity Thinking embraces uncertainty, unpredictability and complexity as inevitable. It encourages ‘dexterous thinking’ and guards against using a set methodology.


Simplicity experiments from well-known Organisations

Below are examples of how organisations have launched simplicity sprints to kill complexity:


  • Home Depot. Store managers were supplied with an ‘anti-bullsh*t’ stamp which they could use on overly bureaucratic requests from HQ.
  • Amazon: Jeff Bezos initiated the 2-pizza rule: if you cannot feed everyone in a meeting with 2 pizzas, there are too many people.
  • Nike: “Simplify + Go” is a maxim (value). “Life is too short and the competition too fast to spend time in pointless debate and gratuitous nuance.”
  • Adobe: After calculating it cost 1.8m hours a year, Adobe scrapped the formal performance management process.
  • Ferrari: A Computer plug-in stops employees sending the same internal email to more than three colleagues.
  • Pfizer: Pfizerworks was set up for scientists and engineers as a function to outsource basic, time-consuming administration.
  • General Electric: Off plan decisions were simplified to 2 signs-offs. Your boss and your boss’s boss.
  • Boots: The first step to simplify management reporting was to stop sending reports altogether. Who complained? Not as many people as assumed. The result was a reduction in management reports from 206 to 48.
  • BBC: The Director General introduced a culture change programme called ‘Show bureaucracy the red card’. Any member of staff could brandish a red card to challenge anything they saw as bureaucratic.


And closer to home, we’ve seen these experiment ideas generated in our workshops:


  • Recurring meetings auto-deleted after 6 weeks. Then ask: ‘Do we still need this meeting?’
  • Meetings with more than 6 attendees requires sign-off from Chair’s boss
  • Decision-first agendas. Meeting Chair’s proposed decision or opinion next to every agenda item
  • Cost stamps on agenda (Time x number of attendees x £ hourly salary)
  • At start of a meeting, every attendee explains in 30 seconds why they are there



  • Email windows. People only check emails 2 or 3 times per day at set times
  • Banners: ‘Think before you email’, ‘Please note, I only look at my emails twice per day’
  • Common email subject lines: FYI, Y/N, Decision Needed, Urgent, Non-Urgent
  • Develop Outlook plug-in to auto-delete emails received when someone is on holiday


Management reporting

  • Stop sending management reports for 1 or 2 periods. What happens?
  • Ask report receivers to co-design reports with report producers
  • Include a cost stamp on the cover of management reports (Time x # attendees x £ hourly salary)
  • Standardise all management reports into a common format (e.g. 1-page summary + 2-page appendix)


IT & Systems

  • CIO joins end users for a ‘Systems Safari’ to experience everyday IT & Systems complexity
  • ‘Safe systems workaround’. Empower people to workaround to achieve the desired outcome. Then work with IT to share insights



  • All PPT presentations capped at 10 slides. £10 per slide charity donation for every additional slide
  • Tweet limits (140 characters max) for certain communication within teams
  • Acronym and Jargon busting sessions


Organisation admin

  • 60-second challenge. Hack at basic processes (e.g. booking holiday requests, meeting rooms) so they take no longer than 1 minute to do
  • Push paperwork back to source with suggestions on how it could be simpler



  • Under £250, empower all staff to make purchasing decisions



  • Process and policy purge. Remove any process or policy that hasn’t been used for 12 months
  • ‘What if’ challenges. If we had to achieve this outcome with 50% of people, cost or time, how would we design it?



Beyond the Canvas to embed simplicity

As detailed, the Canvas has been designed to encompass what we’ve seen work in successful simplicity interventions. There are, however, obvious limitations of a 1-day workshop. Organisations serious about killing complexity should also consider:


  • Mandating the Canvas across all major Business Units, Departments and Functions
  • Deploying diagnosis tools frequently to understand the causes and conditions of complexity in changing contexts
  • Including ‘Killing Complexity’ (well done, Aviva!) or something simplicity related as a Value or stated strategic priority. Measure and reward people against this
  • Ensuring Leaders genuinely role model killing complexity and are aware of the complexity they personally create
  • Teaching Managers how to spot and remove everyday complexity
  • Giving all employees a process to share how and where complexity is hindering them at work
  • Ensuring all change programmes seek to remove complexity rather than add it. Ideally, stop an old initiative before introducing a new one
  • Seeking simplicity principles in common organisational activity such as strategic planning, performance management, management reporting, meetings and the use of email
  • Designing cultural interventions to change complexity creating mindsets, behaviours and habits
  • Continually challenging what is done day-to-day, how and why. Zero base people’s capacity to the activities which matter the most


Leading simplicity programmes

Some organisations have delivered extraordinary programmes which have killed complexity and delivered simplicity. Below we’ve summarised four we found inspiring.


General Electric

GE created the Work-Out, a 1 – 3-day bureaucracy busting hackathon. Work-Out was mandated for each Business Unit and Function, giving a consistent approach for systemically removing complexity. CEO Jack Welch celebrated and promoted the champions of Work-Out. There were consequences for non-cooperation. Welch proved simplicity can be accelerated if you bring together the right people, ask the right questions and expect a progress in 30 – 90 days.

Outcome: When Welch arrived at GE in 1981 it was worth $14bn. When he left in 2001 it was worth $410bn. General Motors, Wal-Mart, IBM, Phillips, Home Depot, Sears and Unilever have all imitated the approach.



Steve Jobs was a personal evangelist of simplicity. Jobs was adamant culture was the key to removing complexity, not process. Every day Jobs asked his Executive Team: “What have you said no to today?”. Jobs used a symbolic ‘simplicity stick’ to ‘hit’ employees when he saw complexity at Apple. When in a meeting room, Jobs would demand from attendees: ‘Why are you here? What could you be doing?’.

Outcome: In 2011, Apple became the most valuable firm in the world, overtaking Exxon. 10 years earlier, Apple was ranked 287 on the S&P500.



AZ wanted to create time for growth by stopping and simplifying low value activity. Setting a simple stretch goal of 1 million hours/year (= 550 FTEs) focused everyone and ensured progress could be measured. AZ realised simplification required new capability, so people were given a toolkit to guide them. The toolkit was rolled out by a group of simplicity champions.

Outcome: 12 months after the programme started, 700 simplification projects have resulted in more than 2 million hours a year being saved.



Bayer appointed a Global Head of Complexity Reduction to lead all simplicity efforts. They mandated a 1-day complexity reduction workshop for their top 1,000 Leaders. A toolkit focused on solving real complexity issues identified by direct reports. What’s more, all Leaders had a tangible complexity reduction goal in their formal performance goals.

Outcome: 1,150 simplicity projects which reduced €450m in direct costs and freed up €600m in time.


Warning: some simplicity programmes do fail

Simplicity programmes have a mixed track record of success. Many start with great intent. But after a big bang launch employees are barely able to notice a difference.

In fact, research by Deloitte revealed that only 2% of simplification programmes were rated ‘excellent’. Here are some thoughts why simplicity programmes fail:


  • Simplicity programmes require CEO-level sponsorship
  • Most simplicity programmes start and stop with structural change. Simplification means divesting business units, crashing together operations or simplifying what’s offered to customers. Little consideration is given to employees experiencing complexity
  • Causes and conditions are not properly understood, so solutions are designed for symptoms.
  • Organisations don’t know where to start. Complexity feels pervasive and inevitable. It’s hard to change what it’s hard to see
  • Organisations think their managers should be able to kill complexity. Simplicity is a new discipline which requires new tools and new thinking
  • Simplicity is not necessarily sexy, so it can quickly fall down the priority list
  • Genuine simplicity requires senior people to change the mindsets, behaviours and habits which have made them successful.

Simplicity is hard, it’s not natural and it requires discipline. But as Steve Jobs famously once said “Simple can be harder than complex. But it’s worth it in the end. Because once you get there, you can move mountains”.


If you’re interested in learning from others on the topic, please see our recommended simplicity reading list.


If you’d like to talk to us, please get in touch.



Back to The Killing Complexity Canvas home page

01 The Killing Complexity Canvas

02 Why Complexity Matters

03 The Simplicity Solution

04 Canvas Design Principles