Last summer, two weeks after schools had ended for the summer holidays, I was driving along one of the main arterial routes into London for an early morning appointment when I got caught up in a major traffic jam caused by roadworks.
As anyone who has travelled by road into London, this sort of occurrence comes as no surprise. Usually I don't drive, preferring to use public transport. However, on this day, I had a diary-full of engagements and the car was the most practical means of achieving what I had to do. I also believed that if I set off early enough (5:30am for an 8:00am meeting), I would avoid much of the traffic buildup.
Sitting behind the wheel waiting less than patiently for the traffic to move, I thought to myself: "How ridiculous. Why do they start roadworks at one of the busiest times of the year? They have had months planning this activity, yet they saw fit to start this project at a time knowing that it would cause major disruption!"
It was easy for me, and most other irate commuters, to ask this simple question, but as I sat behind the wheel thinking more about this situation I realised that the solution was much more complex. The finger of blame generally points in the direction of the construction company but there are numerous others involved in the process. To name a few; the local council, the police, emergency services such as fire and ambulance, and public transport authorities.
It didn't ease my frustration, but considering that none of these organisations reports to a single entity, I began to understand the enormity of trying to get them all singing from the same hymn sheet. They all have different priorities, schedules and processes so attempts at coordination seemed doomed to failure.
Ironically, my first meeting that morning was at an organisation I was working with on a project to reduce the levels of complexity within the company that the CEO felt were stifling recovery.
During the period of economic growth following the infamous dot-com crash in 2000, the company had expanded enormously and, as a result, so too had the layers of subdivisions and management. But in the current global economic decline, sales were tepid and revenues were, at best, flat.
A frequently-heard complaint from managers was that there is never enough time to get any real work done because "we have too many meetings to discuss the same old conundrums, and an unacceptable amount of time spent filling out forms for decision approvals." A key objective of the project was to cut across organisational boundaries and, by reducing the levels of complexity, positively change behaviours and attitudes.
How the company got into this situation was the same for many organisations. Complexity is often brought about by the development of multilayered structures in the belief that it is the best way to handle the management responsibilities required in a rapidly developing company. Managers develop processes that are designed to help their organisations scale up, plan and control corporate performance and improve efficiencies with new and existing employees. However, they can quickly get out of control.
Certainly, organisations need rigour, standards and cross-checks in their systems and processes, but they also need room for discretion, innovation, creativity and empathy - that very real human element which makes the most tremendous difference in successful companies.
Mike Wheatley, a turnaround specialist, says that more often than not one of the first things he does when coming on board with a new company is to find the organisation's true value proposition. This means cutting through layers of complex jargon and processes used by the management team to describe the business in the mistaken belief that complexity equates to value, and then finding the main customer benefit and expressing it in words of one syllable.
For him, the acid test is whether or not his 80 year old mother can understand it. If she can then the company's sales prospects most certainly can.
To strip away complexity and make space for simplicity is a balancing act. In many cases, for good reason operational procedures are the first to be targeted. However, increasing simplicity and reducing complexity is not the same thing as making things easy.
A senior manager of a pharmaceutical company was telling me of a situation the company found itself in with the decline of a key product - an antiarthritic drug. Playing its part to reduce costs across the company, manufacturing embarked on a new, less expensive and easier method of packaging the drug. Sales and marketing were not informed of the changes because it was deemed unnecessary. Output of product went up, yet not long after the new packaging hit the shelves of the retail pharmacies, sales started to decline.
The sales reps were adamant that the doctors favoured the drug and were continuing to prescribe it. After a year of falling sales, it transpired that many patients were having difficulty removing the product from its new packaging, so doctors were being selective as for which patients they prescribed the drug.
Of course manufacturing did not intentionally set out to cause problems for patients; it was only trying to save money as instructed. However, had senior management discussed this issue first at an internal multidisciplinary meeting (something that rarely, if ever happened), the situation probably would never have occurred. Trying to increase simplicity in this case ended up by causing significantly greater levels of cost and a huge amount of frustration.
So, as a business leader, HR director, project manager or other, what is required to achieve simplicity in the face of complexity?
First and foremost, coordination, collaboration and communication are of absolute and fundamental importance. Radical simplification - the removal of unnecessary complexity - is not impossible but it does take a bit of hard work, thought and attention in real terms - real time and real language which is clear, accessible and direct.
You have to really listen to understand (which is not the same thing as hearing), and identify what is most important to your staff, your customers and your company's future.
Perhaps a small thing, but nonetheless important, be a great editor in meetings and strategy sessions. Remove the jargon, clutter and other unnecessary debris so that you can focus on what's important.
Automate, eliminate, delegate or hire. Use your instincts; if you think something is wrong or overly complex, it probably is.
Finally, don't forget to celebrate along the way at each little milestone reached. Particularly in difficult economic times, by demonstrating to the staff that progress is being made, irrespective of how big or small that progress may be or the form of the progress, it is something positive that everyone can hold onto.