Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Simplicity: The Leader's Secret Weapon

It's an unfortunate fact that management actions usually make life more difficult for employees. Think about it: When was the last strategic initiative, policy change, new procedure, or reorganization in your firm that didn't result in more things to do or greater complexity? Considering that employees (including managers) already feel overloaded and overstressed, it's little wonder that these changes are greeted with skepticism, if not disdain. Moreover, such attempts to improve performance usually yield disappointing results.

The costs of excessive complexity are substantial. It consumes our limited time, distracts us from the things that really matter, leads to rampant inefficiency, drags down employee morale, steals from the bottom line. Even our efforts to make things simpler often result in unwanted complexity. Some IT investments are a classic example. Computers produce increasingly greater quantities of information, but the human capacity to deal with it has not similarly evolved. Plus the time-saving potential of IT is often neutralized by increased demands for worker output—more forms to fill out, more reports to submit, more data to review, more communications to respond to.

No wonder that many of the most successful companies have discovered the power of simplicity. Focusing on what's important, reducing complexity, clarifying expectations, simplifying work processes—these are the elusive secrets to enhanced productivity and performance. Several studies confirm this.

In the popular book Good to Great, author Jim Collins cites simplicity as a key factor in the exceptional success of the companies he investigated. He says the best firms take one simple concept and execute it with excellence, an approach he termed the "hedgehog concept." This success formula is rooted in focusing on three things:
  • What you can do the best
  • What you are passionate about
  • What you can get well paid for

What Leaders Should Focus On

The hedgehog concept recognizes our limitations, which points to the need for focus and clarity. The ability to concentrate limited resources on the few things that matter most is a critical leadership attribute. Effective leaders enable the best use of our two most precious assets:

Time. We all have more demands on our time than we have time to do them. So we have to make wise choices. Leaders define corporate and team priorities, and guide choices about how best to use our time. By concentrating time, we improve performance. When people's time is spread over too many activities or, worse, spent on tasks that yield little value, our efforts to achieve excellence are undermined.

Attention. The collective knowledge and wisdom of your staff goes hand in hand with time as your firm's most vital asset. But having smart people does not assure they will perform smartly. People can focus on only so many things at a time. Many company tasks divert attention away from the activities where their brainpower is best leveraged to advantage. Leaders enable people to focus their attention on what they do best, and on what benefits the firm most.

If you are in a leadership role, let me put this challenge before you: How can you make your firm's or your team's work better by making it simpler? Unfortunately, simplicity in today's workplace is not all that, well, simple. But untangling the web of complexity that engulfs your company can be done, at least to some degree. Let me encourage you to make it a leadership priority. The results may well be simply grand.

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