In all business operations, simplicity is desirable but complexity is inevitable. Long ago, Oliver Wendell Holmes is reported to have claimed, “I wouldn’t give a fig for simplicity on this side of complexity but I would give my life for simplicity on the other wide of complexity.” Presumably Albert Einstein agreed while realizing that most people did not -- nor could they -- fully understand the complexity of his theories about relativity. Nonetheless, he urged that everything be made “as simple as possible but no simpler.” Business leaders face that challenge every day.
In Kill the Company (2012), Lisa Bodell has a rock-solid thesis and I think it is best explained with a metaphor. Think of a company as a garden, as a living organism, and think of its leaders as gardeners. The healthiest gardens receive proper nourishment and relentless, skillful pruning by leaders who have a green thumb for "growing" people as well as vegetation.
As I read that brilliant book, I was again reminded of what was then described (in 1980) as a "killer frost." My wife said that, to save our young crepe myrtles, we would have to trim them back severely, almost to ground level. We did and they survived the single-digit temperatures and eventually flourished. In Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (1942), Joseph Schumpeter introduced his concept of "creative destruction." That is what then GE chairman and CEO, Reggie Jones, had in mind when he selected Jack Welch to succeed him and urged him to “blow up GE."
In Why Simple Wins, Bodell develops in even greater depth her thoughts about achieving and then maintaining operational simplicity “on the other side of complexity” as Holmes suggests while being “as simple as possible but no simpler” as Einstein suggests. She explains how to develop a mindset that will enable almost anyone to eliminate complexity with a remarkably simple approach, best explained within her narrative, in context.
She asserts – and I agree – that operational simplification can “dramatically improve results [whereas] complexity can accelerate a company’s death knell.” That is especially true now when the global marketplace is more volatile, more uncertain, more complex, and more ambiguous than at any prior time that I can remember.
Michael Porter once observed, "The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do." This is one of the most important elements in the process of simplification that Bodell recommends. Whatever is simplified must be as minimal as possible but (yes) no simpler as well as understandable, repeatable, and accessible. Simplification must be a never-ending process at all levels and in all areas of the given process. In production, for example, it means improving first-pass yield while reducing cycle time. As Porter suggests, everyone involved must choose what not to do, focusing instead on doing what must be done and doing it as efficiently as possible.
These are Lisa Bodell’s concluding remarks and I urge each reader to take them to heart: “Don’t wait. Start simplifying. Don’t let anyone waste your time anymore. Get back to the meaningful work that will provide you with real satisfaction. Whether as organizations or as individuals, the investments we each make in simplifying our lives are well worth the cost...Improve the work and you improve the culture. Both of these together allow you to improve the organization – for everyone.”
Robert Morris and has been published with his permission. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.