Do You Default To Simplicity – Or Complexity?

Although it doesn’t show up explicitly in any personality test, some people seem to be more prone to creating complexity than others.

Instead of cutting to the heart of an issue, they tangle it further; rather than narrowing down projects, they allow the scope to keep expanding  –Ron Ashkenas

Are you a simplifier or a complexifier?

  • Do you send emails that take people a long time to read and cc people in or even bcc them?
  • Do you constantly strive to add new processes, products, or procedure?
  • Do you hold recurring meetings with your team and involve yourself in every team decision?
  • Do you constantly send people off to explore new concepts and research new ideas reporting back to you?

If you answered yes to more than two it’s likely you’re a complexifier. And in an increasingly complex world we need more simplifiers.

On Friday a couple of us were on stage at the ICC in Birmingham explaining to 1100 colleagues that the programme we are working on is less about transformation and more about simplification.

But if it’s just about being simple how come it’ll take up to five years to do it?

As Steve Jobs said, simple can be harder than complex. Most of our organisations default to the difficult for a reason – it’s easier.

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

Unravelling this – at the same time as keeping business running as usual – is no easy task.

Last year we started the process of mass simplification of Bromford by asking leaders to define their service offerings in just 100 words. Some nailed it, some wrote a book, but the point was:

If you can’t describe what you’re there to do in ways a five year old could grasp – you’re probably making it too complex. 

The key to solving complex problems may be to simplify as much as possible and approach them with a beginner’s mind. Without going all Zen Buddhist on you the concept of Shoshin means having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when approaching a subject.

Admittedly it’s hard to be Zen Like  when faced with budget cuts, conflicting deadlines and change and transformation programmes – but many of our biggest problems need purposeful contemplation and new thinking. According to Shoshin thinking – in the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.

Simplicity also means saying no to things and doing less. Many of an organisations activities are misaligned from , or have poorly defined, strategic objectives. We often anchor around the wrong thing. That’s why some big institutions have no chance – they are hit by random plans and transformations rather than anchoring around purpose and iteration.

This takes discipline though as it means killing vanity projects and saying no when something doesn’t fit into the plan

Ultimately simplification means making it easier for your people to get things done and for your customers and other partners to work with you.

As the world becomes more complex, simplifying strategy, leadership, decision-making and all of our communication becomes more important than ever.

7 responses to “Do You Default To Simplicity – Or Complexity?”

  1. I remember an example during the foot and mouth epidemic some years ago. Unfortunately the only way to stop the spread was to slaughtered thousands of cattle. This was highly controversial at the time and was proving to be a logistical nightmare. A senior army officer was drafted in to sort out the mess. Within a few weeks the process was running smoothly. When asked how he had done it. He simply said. “They had taken a simple task and made it complicated my job was to make it simple again”. There is always a simpler and better way.

    1. Absolutely Tom

      Our brains like to keep busy and that’s not always good for simplification. Even if something is simple, our brain concludes that it can’t be that simple and proceeds to make it much more complicated!

      Thanks for commenting

  2. Paul, I’m a little confused about the last two bullet points at the start of your post. How do you think they make someone into a complexifier?

    1. Hi Rob – I’ve added an extra word to the last bullet – constantly.

      Having a desire to be involved in every decision and constantly seeking out new ideas are positive when it comes to collaboration and innovation but not when it comes to simplification.

      Complexifiers are averse to reduction. They add things to business rather than subtract – new activities, new meetings, often sending multiple people off to look at the same thing.

      Bear in mind separating people into complexifiers or simplifiers is in itself an oversimplification! Most of us will fall somewhere in between those extremes

      1. Thanks for clarifying Paul, I understand what you were getting at now.

  3. […] ni symud o broses i gynhyrchiant er mwyn grymuso staff i wneud penderfyniadau gwell yn lle hynny? Mae Paul Talyor wedi ysgrifennu blogbost gwych am hyn, a rhoddodd Owain Israel o Charter Housing enghraifft dda o roi hyn ar waith gan eu bod yn gwneud […]

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