Keeping It Simple

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This story appears in the August 2000 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Michelle Boggs knows complexity. The co-founder and president of McKinley Marketing Partners Inc. has overseen the Alexandria, Virginia, marketing temp agency's growth from $800,000 to $12 million in sales in five years as it opened offices from coast to coast. She loves tackling problems, such as designing an in-house information system to track projects and billing. But sometimes even Boggs admits complexity can be too much.

"In a recent meeting we were discussing solutions to an issue, and we were going in five different directions as we brainstormed some ideas," says Boggs, 41. "They were all great, but they were all complicated. My comment was, 'Hey, guys, we need to keep this simple.' "

Bill Jensen agrees. The Morristown, New Jersey, consultant contends that companies need to drastically simplify the way they do things. "Simplicity begets innovation, creativity and speed," says Jensen, who has preached his gospel of simplicity to executives at such companies as Monsanto, Ford Motor Credit and Bank of America. Simplicity makes it easier to spot what's important in the stream of information assaulting all businesses today, he says. "The easier it is to figure out what's important," he adds, "the faster you get it done and the higher your quality is."

Mark Henricks is an Austin, Texas, writer who specializes in business topics and has written for Entrepreneur for 10 years.

Understanding Simplicity

Although complaints and musings about life's complications have been around since time began, the modern trend toward simplicity probably began no more than six years ago. That was when veteran entrepreneur Elaine St. James published a book called Simplify Your Life: 100 Ways to Slow Down and Enjoy the Things That Really Matter (Hyperion). After appearing on The Oprah Winfrey Show as an expert on simplification, St. James, of Santa Barbara, California, found enough interest in her ideas about cutting back on nonessentials that she has since written three more books. Her fifth book, Simplify Your Life At Work (Hyperion), is due out next January.

People know their lives and businesses are too complex, says St. James, pointing to the steady annual sales of 2.5 million copies that her books continue to rack up. "There are a lot of people out there who would really like to simplify their work lives, but they just don't know how to begin," she suggests. "One of the best ways for entrepreneurs to simplify their companies and lives is to engage in work that they truly enjoy and have a clear idea of what their priorities are."

Trying to juggle duties at work and home? Read "Yin And Yang" to help you get your life in order.

Entrepreneurs may know more about simplification than they think, however, notes Jensen. "Every single company out there is already practicing it," he says. "The problem is, they're practicing it with their customers and not their work force. When we design a Web site, we think long and hard about what's linking to what and how the information flows. But we're not very disciplined about thinking about the needs of workers."

Jensen bases his concepts about simplicity on a seven-year study of attitudes and practices in nearly 500 companies. The research involved thousands of interviews with owners, managers and employees of those companies. Jensen says the thing that struck him about all the conversations was how committed most people were to doing a better job, and how much the overly complex management styles of most managers were keeping them from doing it. "I'm blown away by the possibilities of what the work force could do," he adds, "if we were just more disciplined about how we use our time and attention."

The Key To Simplification

The key to simplification is being clear about what you want and need from a situation, as opposed to trying to comprehend everything about a situation. When you focus your attention on the totality of information and options available, things get too complicated, Jensen says. If you instead clarify what you need to make a decision-or what workers need to do their jobs-then you reduce complexity, he says.

"We need to start asking more questions about clarity, about making sense and about understanding, and less about access to information," says Jensen. He presents five questions entrepreneurs can use to help simplify a decision, or help an employee simplify his or her job. Ask: How is this relevant to what I do? What, specifically, should I do? How will I be measured, and what are the consequences? What tools and support are available to me? What's in it for me and us? Answers, Jensen says, will help entrepreneurs cut through clutter to find the simpler subset of what's important. You can also use these questions to simplify tasks such as sorting through and deciding exactly what to answer in your in-boxes packed with e-mail, he says.

Jensen suggests you remember the five questions by tying them to the acronym CLEAR. The C stands for how something is connected to you. The L stands for a list of steps to take. The E stands for expectations of what success will look like. The A stands for ability, and reminds you to ask what tools and support are needed. Finally, the R stands for the return that will be given back in the form of money, recognition or some other kind of coin to the person, company or team.

If that's too complicated, then just try thinking about what you want and cutting out the rest, St. James advises. "The first step is to really be clear about what your business is and what your main focus is, and say no to as much else as you can," she says. "That way you'll be able to focus on the end product or service and make sure that the people that you have working for you have the same focus."

Don't leave your employees on the outside looking in. Learn how to clue them in on your business decisions by reading "Give It Away."

Know Your Limits

Being simple isn't the same as being slow. "This is not 'Keep it simple, stupid,' " Jensen says. Simplifiers have to be careful not to appear condescending to employees. Instead, they need to keep the focus on trying to understand exactly what workers need, and how to provide it.

Not every worker needs you to simplify, Jensen cautions. "If you have a team of people who thrive on complexity, then you'd be overmanaging, investing in stuff they don't need," he says.

And, perhaps surprisingly, an investment in simplicity can be significant. "To create a simpler company is a major change effort," says Jensen. "Just like Six Sigma [see "Cutting Edge," May 1999] and everything else." Jensen estimates it would take two years and considerable training to completely simplify a company. "It involves designing structures, processes and tools that focus on the needs of the people actually doing the work, not just customers and the company."

However, he adds, an entrepreneur can get plenty of benefit by doing no more than simplifying his or her personal approach to business. And whether you practice it personally or roll it out companywide, net costs will be zero or less. "What we're doing is saving time," he says. "It costs zero time and zero dollars when you change how people use time."

The trend toward simplicity is growing, says St. James. She points to ad campaigns from companies such as Honda, Samsung and MCI Worldcom that stress the simplifying aspects of their products.

At this point, however, Jensen sees few companies actively simplifying the way they work with their own employees. "For the most part," he says, "it's not even on the radar screen."

  • Simplicity: The New Competitive Advantage In A World Of More, Better, Faster (Perseus Books) by Bill Jensen describes findings of the Morristown, New Jersey, consultant's 7-year study of complexity and simplicity in business, and presents his prescription for simplifying the way businesses are run. You can learn more and see the study online at

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