The Complex Task of Simplicity

If you want to make things truly simple to use by your customers, you will nearly always have to make your organization take on more complexity – Gerry McGovern

Yesterday, I delivered a talk at a conference that was aimed at getting organisations ‘back to basics’.

The problem, I proposed, was that we live in a complex world and many of us just can’t help trying to help tackle every issue.

  • Climate Change
  • Wellbeing
  • Income inequality
  • Health

That’s often in addition to the core reason we were set up in the first place. The problems we were set up to solve were once quite 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.

There’s a paradox here. Although we appreciate the benefits of simple customer experiences and great design in our everyday lives, we often forget all about it when we walk through the door at work.

My contention is we have stopped seeing it. We don’t even recognise how complex we’ve become.

There’s some science to explain how we may have become ‘complexity blind’.

Our brains cope with complexity by identifying key features and filtering out unnecessary detail. On seeing that the space you enter has walls, a floor and a ceiling, you know you have entered a room and can usually ignore the details. You can find where to sit quite easily without getting all distracted by the view out the window or the pictures on walls. This is an example of what the French psychologist Jean Piaget termed a “schema”. Schemas can be useful because they allow us to take shortcuts in interpreting the vast amount of information that is available in our environment.

When your working day is crammed full of meetings and emails it’s easier to just screen out the bullshit and the complexity and just , well,  try to cope.

And sometimes we don’t just take mental shortcuts – we take physical shortcuts too.

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Desire paths were beautifully described by Robert McFarlane as “paths & tracks made over time by the wishes & feet of walkers, especially those paths that run contrary to design or planning”, They spring up when humans vote against design – with their feet.

But desire paths exist within our organizations too, when colleagues make illicit shortcuts through bad policy and procedure to make their working lives a little easier.

Sometimes there are very visible signs of complexity , such as long lists of KPIs or structure charts that look like a company is preparing for an invasion of Europe rather than serving customers.

Last year Sky admitted that they had identified over 2,000 KPIs within their business. They took radical action and reduced it to just 30. Interestingly , they did this by cutting the people involved by 84%. They admitted the KPIs fulfilled no purpose whatsoever and  were just in the business because “someone liked them”.

How can we simplify complex organisations? 

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

Being simpler means spending more time in problem definition, and more time observing what users need and how they behave. Einstein believed that the quality of the solutions we come up with will be in direct proportion to the quality of the description of the problem we’re trying to solve. Not only will solutions be more abundant and of higher quality, but they’ll be achieved much more simply.

Simplicity also means saying no to things and doing less. Many of an organization’s 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

It also means taking a different view of design – and removing activities rather than adding them in.

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The Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman challenged this thinking with his idea of “Shared Space”. His concept was simple. Remove all traffic lights, signs, and road markings. The results were the opposite of what most people expected. The traffic moved slower, people paid more attention, and accidents ultimately declined.

Monderman’s theory was that increasing traffic regulations reduces personal responsibility, the need for drivers and pedestrians to pay attention to what is happening around them.

“The trouble with traffic engineers is that when there’s a problem with a road, they always try to add something,” Monderman says. “To my mind, it’s much better to remove things.”

What would our organisations look like if , when faced with a problem, we focused on removing things rather than adding them in?

What if every time we added a new activity we abandoned an old one?

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The second of the Bromford Design Principles is abandon activities that don’t add value. I’m going to put my neck on the block and suggest it has been the least successful of the nine principles we introduced. Yesterday certainly reminded me that should be my personal focus in 2020.

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. It should be our number one focus – but it certainly isn’t.

Being simple – it’s complex.

 

How The 9-5 Saps Our Creativity and Harms Our Productivity

From ten to eleven, have breakfast for seven; From eleven to noon, think you’ve come too soon; From twelve to one, think what’s to be done; From one to two, find nothing to do; From two to three, think it will be; A very great bore to stay till four.

A Day At The Office – Thomas Love Peacock, published in 1852

Nearly 10 years ago, Professor Gloria Mark of the University of California conducted a study into workplace interruptions.

Observers literally followed people around all day and timed every event that happened in the office.

What they found is that the average amount of time that people spent on any single event before being interrupted – was just three minutes. And it took on average 23 minutes for the person to regain their focus.

More importantly, after only 20 minutes of interrupted performance people reported significantly higher stress, frustration, workload, effort, and pressure.
A decade later – how many companies have considered this and what it means for design?
How many of us truly consider how environments and work practices are conducive to productivity and fulfilment?

pablo

The office is the biggest inefficiency tax that organisations layer over themselves.

They cost huge amounts to procure and maintain, they become an all too convenient base for meetings (the next biggest inefficiency tax), and they set a precedent for the expected hours that people are meant to work.

Offices promote lengthy commuting which has consequences for both the environment and our own mental health. A recent study found that just a 20-minute increase in commute time is equivalent to getting a 19% pay cut for job satisfaction.

Most importantly – and this is the focus of my piece – they presume that there is a unique formula for productivity or creativity.

There isn’t.

One of the reasons is that we all sleep differently – and our internal clock shapes our energy levels, ability to focus, and creativity throughout the day.

This is known as our circadian rhythm and it has a profound effect on our creativity. It doesn’t work how you’d expect – for instance many morning people have more insights in the evening with night owls having their breakthroughs in the morning.

Each day on average we take a few hours to reach peak performance – at around 10:30am. Soon after lunch those levels start to decline before hitting a low point around 3pm. The “very great bore to stay still until four” that Peacock wrote about – over 150 years ago – has gone largely unaddressed.

Our second performance peak, at around 6pm, is reached after most offices have closed.

As a result, very few of us spend time in a state of flow. Flow, a state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best, is the most desirable work state on earth, but it’s also the most elusive.  According to Steven Kotler , the average person spends less than 5% of their day in flow. If you could increase that to 15%, overall workplace productivity would double.

That’s why at Bromford we have no specific start or finishing time. As Philippa Jones writes , we need a radical review of the purpose of offices and that means having to think very differently about what it means to “go to work”.

IMG_5523
Nintendo and Google Home – My office space last week

Acceptance of the need to reimagine the world of work isn’t everywhere though.

Last week I badly needed to focus to hit a deadline. Focus comes to me not from sitting in silence but from short 30-minute periods of concentration accompanied by music, and punctuated every half an hour by rapid pacing, a quick video game or Twitter catch up.

Interestingly – it was commented on, fairly negatively, by a colleague, even though it was having no impact at all on their work.

That’s an entirely normal response for people – because it doesn’t look like the world  they are used to.

  • Sitting at a desk doing emails looks like work.
  • Playing Mario and shouting song requests at a virtual assistant – doesn’t.

It’s incredibly difficult for most people to imagine a different future, which is why getting people to agree on what workspaces should look like results in the average of everyone.

New buildings need to be designed for networks – and organised to maximise a meeting of minds.

At Pixar for example, Steve Jobs created environmental conditions that promoted novelty, unpredictability, and complexity in the environment. As a result of this flow, creativity and productivity increased.

Traditional office buildings were built to isolate people, so forcing people to meet each other leads to different operating systems.

The challenge is that this won’t work for everyone. Most of us don’t work at Pixar and have to balance the needs of colleagues with very different working styles.

A good place to start would be better understanding our people.

Your next conversation with your team could be about how much sleep they are getting, when they feel they are most creative, and what the optimal conditions are to get their full concentration.

A world of work that’s in tune with your own circadian rhythms sounds like a more productive, more creative and infinitely happier place.

Lessons in Customer Experience from Apple

Apple has a clearly defined mission of creating products that are “insanely great.”  

Simply stating that ambition achieves little.  It is Apple’s commitment to its values, such as integrated architecture and clean design (even on the inside of the device where no one will see it), that defines its products in the marketplace.  

That’s what makes Apple the most valuable company in the world – Greg Satell

Apple-store-in-China

In 2012 I publicly deserted Apple – announcing I was fed up with their arrogance. I crossed the divide to Android. People had quite a laugh about it on Twitter – many predicting I’d be back in 12 months. They were wrong though.

I was back in six.

I’m not an Apple fanboy. Far from it. Organisations are just a bunch of people. And they carry with them the same unique strengths and flaws that exist in all of us.

But something was different during my six months away. It just didn’t feel the same.

The best brands and organisations draw an emotional response from us – we become attached to how they make us feel. And we’ll almost always choose how something feels over any other factor , including cost.

Yesterday I visited Apple in London as a guest of Housemark.

Apple have a notoriously secretive culture so we were asked not to photograph our visit and not to use social media. (That’s some ask for me – I was told off within five minutes for trying to post to Instagram…)

For that reason and out of respect to our hosts I’m not revealing anything here that isn’t already in the public domain. I’ve included a couple of quotes but paraphrased them. 

Every great organisation I have visited has a distinct culture and Apple are no different.

As I explained in my last post – this is one of the reasons people may dislike you. Many people , whatever they say , actually like the bland and the mediocre . They are suspicious of those pushing forward. 

And you certainly don’t get to be the biggest brand on the planet without pushing forward and upsetting a few people. 

What can we learn?

Keep it simple , simple, simple: 

Apple are obsessive over keeping things simple – the very thing some of their detractors despise.

Unlike many parts of the public sector, which revels in its own complexity, Apple have recognised that people fundamentally love simplicity and great design. So they shape their business around that purpose. 

They focus on doing a small number of things exceptionally well. Their entire product range can fit on one slide. They got to be the biggest by doing the least.

By comparison, most of us focus on doing lots of things in very average ways.

Relentlessly focus on your customer experience:

I’ve visited so many organisations over the past fifteen years and everyone talks about the importance of customer experience.

Few actively demonstrate it. Fewer still make it their single focus. Apple show end to end design around the customer.

  • The first experience of walking into a store.
  • The lack of signage which encourages you to talk to a member of staff.
  • Even obsessing down to the quality of the packaging (how can it be improved and made more beautiful?)

The belief is – focus on the end user at all times rather than what everyone else is doing. Profit will follow if you stick to that purpose.

Steve Jobs was notorious for his disdain of focus groups. Apple claim though to listen very carefully to what customers want. What they don’t do is let customers design the products for them. 

It’s through this extensive study of customer needs that they know how to make the experience easy for new users, while also meeting the needs of those who are more sophisticated. As my Mum said to me at the weekend “I can’t use the internet but I can use the iPad.”

Innovate as fast as you can. Then innovate again:

Through having control of their supply chain Apple can introduce changes more quickly than others.  The ethos is to develop initial product within 1- 3 months and then refine it.

This seems a world away from most of our delivery where service change can take not just months but years.

As Cris Beswick has said – only 3% of UK companies are able to get ideas to market in less than six months. It’s not what they are doing that’s any different, it’s how they are doing it. 

Many in the public sector focus on big organisational change which they then become too frightened to ever implement. Apple talk of the “relentless pursuit of incremental innovation” which many often ignore. 

If you’ve got a year long project it probably won’t ever happen or it’ll be out of date before delivery.

It’s the mantra we are trying to install at Bromford: Start small , test quickly and ditch it if it doesn’t work.

A final question to Apple as we left the building: “What are you then? A tech company?” 

The answer:

No – a customer experience company.”

I wonder how many of us would describe ourselves that way?