Here's Why You Should Embrace Simplicity as a Strategy (and 3 Ways to Do It)
Here are three recommendations for placing simplicity at the center of your organizational strategy.
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"Simple is harder than complex," said Steve Jobs, the acknowledged master of simplicity in product design. "Once you get there, you can move mountains." Jobs spent his career trying to get his thinking "clean" and cultivating a "beginner's mind" so that he could make things simple. And he largely succeeded: Today, Apple is the second-largest company in the world by market capitalization, and its products are renowned for their sleek design and simplicity.
As Jobs notes, however, getting to "simple" isn't easy. Every business, regardless of industry, operates in an environment of complexity — and that's never been truer than it is today. Complexity saps an organization's strength, reduces its speed to market and serves as a drag on operational efficiency, and perhaps most importantly, its focus on customer needs.
And simplicity ranks high on the list of consumer desires. According to a global study of more than 15,000 consumers across the U.S., Europe and Asia, including the Middle East, 76% of respondents said they were more likely to recommend a brand that delivers simple experiences — up from 64% in 2018.
There are multiple causes of business complexity. In a classic 2007 Harvard Business Review article, "Simplicity-Minded Management," Ron Ashkenas cites four main sources:
Structural mitosis: the steady accretion of structural changes or new organizational layers that makes businesses unwieldy and difficult to manage
Product proliferation: the ongoing expansion of a company's product portfolio through the addition of new products, product lines or product variations
Process evolution: the ongoing multiplication of organizational processes that contributes to inefficiency and even internal conflicts
Managerial habits: the behavior — in some cases unintentional — of senior leaders and managers that makes for unnecessary work, which persists over time
In addition to organizational and product complexity, people today confront an increasingly complex technology landscape, both in their personal and professional lives. Indeed, as advanced technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and AI applications like machine learning take hold, more and more people will be working alongside machines. Workers will need to have a working knowledge of complex technology and the necessary skills to manage human-machine interactions.
So, how can we, as leaders, defend against this tidal wave of complexity? Here are three recommendations for placing simplicity at the center of your organizational strategy:
1. Set clear, quantitative goals
Most entrepreneurs are driven by the desire to make the world a better place by improving upon the way things have always been done and inspired by lofty visions for the way things can be done. While being motivated by a deeply personal mission is important, it is just as important for entrepreneurs to set a few specific, measurable goals that guide their day-to-day work. Quantifying what success looks like — a month, quarter or year down the line — gives you benchmarks to work towards and allows you to make decisions based on hard facts and data.
Clearly defined goals are also necessary to align your team around a shared purpose. Just as a rowing team can't move forward unless everyone agrees upon the direction in which they are going, an organization will only thrive if every individual understands what they are working together to achieve.
2. Examine your people, processes and technology
Established in the early 1960s, the people, process, technology framework — sometimes called the Golden Triangle — encapsulates the three elements of a successful organizational transformation. This framework is just as useful for entrepreneurs looking to simplify their ways of working. Has your organizational structure become too hierarchical, and would a flatter structure eliminate barriers to getting work done? Can you expedite the process in which products are brought to market? Technology can automate time-intensive but low-value work, but too much technology can create unnecessary complexity. If you want to simplify your business but are unsure of where to begin, taking a closer look at your people, processes and technology is an excellent starting point.
3. Slow down, and listen to your customer
Simplicity often means slowing down to speed up — taking a step back to assess your progress so you can make sure you remain on the right path. There is a temptation, for example, to just keep building and deploying new products at maximum speed without fully understanding how the solutions are being received by customers. You've got to give those products a chance to breathe before refining them and building new enhancements.
The same is true when developing those enhancements. There's a tendency to overengineer things and develop features that may or may not be relevant to customers. Sometimes the answer is right in front of us — if we just allow the customer's voice to break through and tell us what they're really looking for.
This is why design thinking — the ability to diagnose problems, visualize and identify solutions and bring value to their customers quickly and consistently — is an essential skill for entrepreneurs. Design thinking is a powerful technique for customer-first problem-solving because it requires understanding your most important customers and their pain points first, before determining how to develop solutions that directly address them.
In business, very few things are simple. But we don't need to be ruled by complexity. It's our job as leaders to cut through the noise/distractions and simplify. It's our job to be deliberate, intentional and clear about what's essential to the organization and what's not. As the American philosopher William James noted, "The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook."