How To Make Complex Things Simple


I’ve just had to apply for a new passport.

It’s one of those things that you generally only do every ten years or so. It prompts you to ruminate on a few things.

Ageing: That old passport photo you were embarrassed about now looks like the ideal version of you. You shudder at the thought of what the 2026 edition will look like.

Life: Where have I been in the past decade, what experiences have I had, what have I learned?

And technology and design: Wow – the sheer hell of passport renewal has been replaced by….something quite simple.

Back in 2006 only 3% of us owned a smartphone. Today that figure is 71%. The phone is now the hub of our daily lives – transforming the way we interact with services.

It’s driven us to crave ever greater simplicity. Things we can do on the go. Complex tasks we can perform in minutes rather than hours.

Yet most of our organisations have not adapted to this.

Most of the problems we were set up to solve were relatively simple, but as organisations get larger, there’s more technology, more people, and more regulation. We put together processes, controls, reviews, and structures to deal with all these things. All of these factors together create a great amount of complexity.

For most organisations it’s easier to make a simple thing more complex than it is to make a complex thing more simple.

But our customers’ needs are not so complicated.

Making things simple for them is now a competitive advantage.

Back to the passport.

Mine came back in 8 days – 10 years ago it took about a month.

There are 6.7 million passport transactions in the UK each year – numbers most of our organisations couldn’t dream of handling. To understand how that’s happened it’s useful to look at one of the Government Digital Service (GDS) design principles:

screen-shot-2016-09-09-at-05-23-36GDS have achieved this transformation by doing less not more. They’ve not added new options – or any bells and whistles – they have ruthlessly focused on user need.

The only apparent ‘innovation’ in passport services is that there is now a beta test where you can take your own photo using a smartphone – making the process fully digital. If you’re in the business of manufacturing those little photo booths you get in supermarkets you need to move on. You’re going the way of VHS.

However this simplicity comes at a price – there’s only one way to get a passport. If you want one – you’re going to have learn how. That means acquiring basic digital skills for a start.

This is a world away from how most of our organisations , particularly in the social sector, operate.

  • We bend over backwards to do more things.
  • We create bespoke ways for customers to do business with us – trying to do the right thing but adding layers of complexity and cost into the process.
  • Our websites – often providing an illusion of digital transformation -offer so many services it’s often unclear what organisations actually do.

Doing less not more requires a cultural rather than a digital shift. The lesson from GDS is to find your ‘irreducible core’ – and then constantly refine and innovate against it. Accept we are not always the right people to solve the problem. Do what only you can do. 

How do you make your company’s services simpler? You can start by simplifying your company.


21 thoughts on “How To Make Complex Things Simple

  1. Bang on as always Paul. Funnily enough I’ve also just replaced my passport and had a very similar experience to yours. I also had the same thought process about a) how I had aged in 10 years and b) what I’ll look like in another 10 years!

    There is a key message here for the housing world about less really is more. Not so sure that message is getting through though 😦

    I’ll resist the obvious comments about your Passport needing replacing not because it was 10 years old but because it was worn out…..

    Keep ’em coming!

    1. Thanks Nick – I think the ‘less is more’ message is such a cultural shift as the social sector has been paternalistic in past. A few people have said to me “what about older people who can’t get online?”. Apart from showing a gross generalisation about the digital skills of older people – it’s this we need to move away from. Not just for financial reasons but doing things for people robs them of any personal responsibility and development.

      And yes – see you in 10 years…

  2. There is always a simpler and better way is a good maxim. We tend to over complicate things in life a well as business. The role of good leaders at all levels is too simplify them again. Thanks Paul.

  3. In case anyone’s wondering how this analogy fits with Bromford now offering more face to face contact through our new Neighbourhood Coaches with small patches – they’re the equivalent of offering the Post Office check and send service for those of us who don’t trust ourselves to take our passport pictures properly or tick the right boxes on the form. Simplify online processes for most customers but offer a personal “bridge” for those who want it.

    1. Thanks Philippa that’s a brilliant analogy and spot on. Also the Neighbourhood Coach role is a deliberate choice to differentiate service based upon user need – stripping out non-added value processes as we go.

  4. Let the head see the nail…

    Fascinated by the ways many social landlords are using ‘traditional’ processes to drive technologically simple work. Duplication is common. And costly.

    Paperwork is being used to ‘supplement’ on-line initiative because too many housing people appear to be more digitally excluded than their customers.

    A de-clutter is required – starting with the thinking of those in leadership positions.

    More oldish insight from me at the Fringe Event on 22nd September next door to the NHF conference. Details here:

  5. Good stuff, Paul. There’s only a best way until a better way comes along. Hopefully it’s more simple and takes less time. I had a similar experience recently with Inland Revenue. I was warned how long it would take to register as self-employed and went into the phone call with some trepidation. I was almost disappointed how simple the process was! Fair play to a much maligned agency. Learn to be lean – that seems to be the message and it’s getting through in many places. It’s an approach UK Housing has to adopt wholesale.

    1. Thanks Paul and I agree some of the “much maligned” agencies are leading the way. How? By focussing on need rather than services. If you think in terms of what problems you solve instead of what services you offer, your business is going to be a lot simpler

  6. Hi Paul,
    Great holiday destination choice…you’re always somewhere off the beaten track. After reading this and my messages about GDS/Local Gov design principles – how can we get UK Housing signed up en masse to help deliver change? And ideas about a group/network to encourage or nudge and lead? I see some fab responses to this and need to harness energy…(been up early with kids) enjoy your hols + pics.

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