There is the old saying that rings true to basic leadership: “Keep it Simple Stupid,” (or KISS) yet for various reasons people and organizations opt or are compelled toward complexity.
And when things are complex, the organization is more prone to mistakes, people to misunderstandings, and leadership to mismanagement–all are points of failure in the dynamics of running an organization.
Mistakes can be costly from both a strategic and operational standpoint; misunderstandings between people are a cause of doubts, confusion, and hostility; and mismanagement leads to the breakdown of solid business process and eventually everything goes to pot.
An interesting article in the Wall Street Journal, 26 October 2009, defines four types of complexity:
Dysfunctional—This is the de facto complexity. It “makes work harder and doesn’t create value…research suggests that functional complexity creeps into a company over years through the perpetuation of practices that are no longer relevant, the duplication of activities due to mergers or reorganizations, and ambiguous or conflicting roles.”
Designed—This is an odd one…why would you design in complexity? “Executives may deliberately increase the complexity of certain activities or they may broaden the scope of their product offering, because they expect the benefits of those changes to outweigh the costs.” Example cited: “Dell believes that configuring each product to individual specs, rather than creating them all the same, makes customers more likely to buy from the company.”
Inherent—I guess this is the nothing I can do about it category, it just is hard! “The difficulty of getting the work done.” Plain and simple, some jobs are highly complex Mr. Rocket Scientist.
Imposed—This is the why are they doing this to us category—external factors. This “is largely out of the control of the company. It is shaped by such entities as industry regulators, non-governmental organizations and trade unions.” I would assume competitors’ misdeeds would fall into this one as well.
Whatever the reason for the complexity, we know implicitly that simplification, within the realm of what’s possible, is the desired state. Even when the complexity is so to say “designed in” because of certain benefits like with the Dell example, we still desire to minimize that complexity, to the extent that we can still achieve the organization’s goals.
I remember years ago reading about the complexity of some companies’ financial reports (income statements, balance sheets, statements of cash flows…) and news commentators questioning the authenticity of their reporting. In other words, if you can’t understand it—how do we know if it is really truthful, accurate, or the full story? Well-publicized accounting scandals like Enron, HealthSouth, and many others since around the mid-1990’s come to mind.
Generally, we know that when something is veiled in a shroud of complexity, there is often mismanagement or misconduct at play.
That is not to say that everything in life is simple—it isn’t. Certainly advances in the sciences, technology, and so on are not simple. Knowledge is incremental and there is certainly lot’s of it out there to keep us all occupied in the pursuit of life-long learning. But regardless of how complex things get out there—whether dysfunctional, designed, inherent, or imposed—we should strive to make things easier, more straightforward, and as effortless and trouble-free, as possible.
Will simplification get more difficult as a goal as our society continues to advance beyond the common man’s ability to understand it?
Yes, this is going to be a challenge. It used to be that graduating from high school was the farthest most people went with their education. Then college became the goal and norm for many. And now graduate and post-graduate studies are highly desirable and expected for many professional careers. It is getting difficult for people to keep us with the pace of change, breadth and depth of knowledge, and the advancement in technical fields.
One of the antidotes to the inherent complexity seems to be greater specialization such as in medicine, technology, engineering and so forth. As knowledge advances, we need to break it up into smaller chunks that people can actually digest and handle. The risk is that the pieces become so small eventually that we can lose sight of the bigger picture.
Complexity is here to stay in various forms, but we can and must tackle at the very least the dysfunctional complexity in our organizations. Some ways we can do this include breaking down the silos that impede our collaboration and information sharing; architecting in simplification into our strategic, operational, and tactical plans; building once and reusing multiple times (i.e. through enterprise and common solutions); filling gaps, reducing redundancies, and eliminating inefficiencies; reengineering our business processes as a regular part of “what we do”, constantly innovating better, faster, and cheaper ways of doing things; thinking and acting user-centric, improving the way we treat our people; and of course, being honest, transparent, and upright in our dealings and communications.