Read an Excerpt
What it is and why it works
Simplicity is understanding of the whole. It generates excitement. It's easy to view Simplicity is timeless.
"Search for a Simpler Way" study participant
We've all experienced simplicity in our hearts, homes, and history. The utility of a perfectly balanced kitchen tool, the grace of Fred Astaire, the serenity of a Japanese garden, the pull of a Maya Angelou poem, the contours of an Eames chair, or the drama of humanity revealed in just 272 words in the Gettysburg Address. The simple elegance of these creations and talents ignites our imagination.
But how many of us have experienced the same kind of simplicity at work? What would a simpler workday or company feel like?
Think about yesterday. How did you spend your time? Like everyone else, you get only 24 x 7 x 52 hours per year. Are you spending enough of them doing your best and making a differencebecause the clarity of the moment made it easy to figure out what to do and where to focus?
The Search for a Simpler Way
I witnessed a moment like that almost a quarter century ago. Ever since, I've been studying similar situations, trying to figure out how simplicity works.
I was a junior in college in upstate New York prepping for a midterm exam in logic. You know, if/then, and/or statements. Luckily, I had aced the same course in high school. We were even using the same textbook. So I was bored. I blew off the test and headed to Toronto with some friends to spend a few lostdays.
While playing hooky, I stumbled upon the Ontario Science Centre. It was filled with all sorts of cool interactive playthings, one of which was a maze with Ping-Pong balls poised above 12 channels. The objective was to get just one ball to drop to the bottom. The hard part was that each channel had gates that blocked the balls. To succeed, you had to figure out which levers would open which gates.
I watched two kidsfifth or sixth graderstry once, twice, and on the third attempt, they walked away high-fiving each other. Then it dawned on me. They weren't playing a game. They were performing college-level logic! By figuring out which gates would open by flipping only one lever (an "or" statement) and which channels needed two gates open (an "and" statement), these kids were taking the exam I had just skipped.
The maze designer had created a decision-making environment that stretched the users' thinking power, bringing out new levels of creativity and performance. And the kids had fun doing it.
The brilliance of the moment was an "elegant interface" (order through clarity and ease of use). The problem with thinking of it as a model for work simplicity is that it's linear. The world we live in is messy, full of contradictions. We are driven by competing priorities and emotions. Decisions rarely conform to a finite number of choices, flowing down predetermined paths with a limited number of levers to pull. Still, that experience led me to the study of clarity and how it can help us get things done.
Fast forward. During the late '80s and early '90s, I was helping companies go through change. Once the ten or so people at the top figured out a strategy, my job was to help translate it to the thousands who had to do the work.
I should say that's what I used to think was needed, and what I thought my role should be.
My beliefs started to shift about nine years ago. I was conducting focus groups for PepsiCo. We were introducing what was then the world's largest stock option plan. The plan's name, SharePower, reflected its goalto reward hundreds of thousands of people for "thinking and acting like owners." The assumptions were the same as what you see in most any company: If we encourage and reward ownership behaviors, things will change. People will make better decisions, focused on customer and company success.
All the measures we took said people were getting it. The culture was growing and changing. Yet ... something was missing. Even with all the "right" changes, many people asked, "Must all my choices, decisions, and work be so complicated? Frustrating? Difficult, confusing ... inefficient?" And this was in a company that has created one of the world's finest leadership development disciplines!
During the next few years I noticed the same patterns everywhereat highly successful companies and those struggling to survive, at big and little companies, and at the "most admired" companies, in boardrooms, back rooms, and at project meetings.
The Aha That Sparked Seven Years of Study
The universal problem seems to be how hard people have to work just to figure out what to do. Task work has been streamlined, but knowledge work has become more cluttered and confusing. Making the right choicesfast, while everything's changingis now the toughest part of getting our work done.
I met with a few senior execs to share my beliefs that we could make it easier for people to figure out how to get their work done. Each struggled to contain his or her enthusiasm. "Stop trying to boil the ocean" or "cure world hunger," and ... "Great in theory, but let's focus on the tasks at hand," as well as ... "Been there, done that. We now have a HighPerformingFlexibleBuiltToLastBoundarylessLearning Organization."
Ever the optimistic masochist, I assumed that what they really meant was for me to work on the idea some more. So in 1992 I committed my firm to the "Search for a Simpler Way," a five-year study cosponsored by Northern Illinois University and focusing on Corporate America's ability to design work in the information age. We surveyed over 2,500 people, interviewing almost 1,000 of them.
We polled execs, managers, and line employees at companies like GE, Merck, Hewlett-Packard, Xerox, and Microsoft. Our research also included organizations that ranged from Kelly Services to the U.S. Army; from ServiceMaster to Avon, Domino's Pizza, America Online, Southwest Airlines, and Lucent. The final tally was over 460 organizations. The study stretched into seven years when we resampled the population in '98 and '99.
We asked people how they figured out what to do and how they got things done. What we wanted to know was this: With all that has changed in how we work, are we really working smarter, or just harder and faster?
Working Smarter: We're Still in Our Infancy
Here's a preview of the findings: Business is doing a great job at changing to meet marketplace, customer, and shareholder needs. And it is lousy at making work elegantcreating clarity of choice, then providing the tools and information people need to work smarter.
Business is getting real good at driving new choices into the organization. Yet it's in its infancy in figuring out how to connect people to those choices and how to leverage everyone's brainpower to make infinite use of finite resources and time. Top-performing companies do better than the rest, but they have only scratched the surface of what's possible and needed.
Here's a sampling of what we found:
From a manufacturing plant manager: "I've studied all 79 pages of the performance management training manual and still can't figure out what to do. Especially when I have to also implement [our reengineering program] as well as train all the drivers in new procedures."
From a mid-manager in a services company: "What's important to me is how to decide what to do.... All the plans, spreadsheets and milestones ... just tell me what's due when. I still don't have what I need that tells me how to get it done."
From an SVP of Finance, a manager in Ops, and a line worker in three different organizations came the exact same quote: "I know what I'm supposed to do to make these changes. I just can't figure out how."
The key findings of the study, as well as a website with more information, are detailed in Chapter 2.
The Right Kind of Order
We found that figuring out how to get everything done is really hard. Tougher than we care to admit.
In 1994 Peter Drucker, the father of modern management, nailed the challenge when he looked at the collective thinking and decision making of hundreds of millions of people and declared: "The productivity of knowledge workstill abysmally lowwill become the economic challenge of the knowledge society."
As he often does, Drucker then followed up by describing a path forward. In 1998 he declared: "The next information revolution asks, What is the MEANING of information and what is its PURPOSE? And this is leading rapidly to redefining the tasks to be done with the help of information, and with it, to redefining the institutions that do those tasks."
Simplicity is an information revolution whose mission is to make the complex clear. It's about creating the "right kind" of order. Order that still encourages dynamic change, experimentation, the emergence of ideas, innovation, and learning. This order comes from the discipline of creating clarity and meaning for the people doing the work.
Why Simplicity Works
Gavin Kerr, a friend and an amazing person, clued me in to why simplicity works. He started his career in seminary then took a few turns through marketing, benefits, and HR. He was on a great track at Pepsi, but realized it would cost him more family and community time than he wanted to give. He's now head of transformation at University of Pennsylvania Health Systems.
During reengineering's heyday, Kerr headed a project called 10X for Pepsi New England. The company was shooting for improving four key processes by a factor of ten. He struggled with implementation as all the facetsstrategy, systems, technology, budgets, etc.grew more complex and interconnected.
One Friday I joined him on his long drive home. His family was still living in lower Connecticut while he spent five days a week just outside Boston. We talked for hours about 10X's implementation challenges, as well as successes and failures in our careers and what they all had in common. At one point, he said something so profound and elegant, it stuck with me: "People tolerate management's logic, but they act on their own conclusions."
Obvious, yes. But it's also profound because it says that human nature rules everything.
A weird shift happens when the companies we work for grow large enough (somewhere between three and fifty people) to formalize how things get done: We start believing that corporate logicThe Plan, The Process, The Whateveractually governs the choices we make. We even define governance as "how decisions get made."
Then, after we have spent gazillions of hours and dollars on that logic, we try to get the people doing the work to buy in to it. That is superinvesting in plans and underinvesting in how people really make choices. But human nature works the other way around. We tolerate the logic of things around us, but at the end of the day, what we do reflects the choices we make.
Simplicity works because it is based on human nature and common sense, not on corporate logic.
First: Start with the assumption that most people want to do the right thing and make a difference. Second: Recognize that we're living in a world of infinite choices, and that most people are truly struggling to figure out what will make the most difference. (Remember that even if you've created shared mindset, the human need to make one's own choices will play out every time.) Conclusion: Create order through clarity. Invest in how people really make choices.
But let's not be naive. Simplicity is also about discipline. This book asks you, me, and the companies we work for, to grow out of our infancy in connecting people to choices. If we can make this change, everyone can work smarter, because knowledge work begins with our ability to order, make sense of, and understand everything that demands our attention.
Consider Before You Begin: Simpler for Whom?
The paradox of simplicity is that making things simpler is hard work. If you are reading this book, you probably own that work. Simplicity could be the toughest job you never asked for but must take on.
Making things simpler doesn't have to be about more work for you, but it may mean working differently. The people you lead are seeking ideas and tools that will ignite their imagination, creating just the right tension between order and change. Isn't that what you crave, too?
Before you started thinking about simplicity, your job was already difficult. Leadership guru Warren Bennis says that your role as a leader is about creating the capacity to translate vision into reality. Think of simplicity as nothing more, or less, than self-sustaining feedback as you do that work. Make the complex clear andfor better and worseaccountabilities, trust, freedom, direction, and control become visible to all. Make the complex clear and everyone can make a lot more decisions on his or her own---even while the world continues to create infinite choices.
Although I've tried to provide some tools and questions to jumpstart your efforts, don't look for the dumbed-down "one-minute leader's guide to simplicity." It will never exist. Don't confuse "simplistic" with thoughtful design of how time and energy are used.
I haven't explored all the paths. I can claim only to have spent a number of years studying and talking to people about simpler ways of working. Mostly, I've recorded the challenges, confusion, and chaos felt by many, then relayed some of the ideas and people who are making waves.
I've tried to walk my own talk. I've tweaked the nose of my chosen professionconsulting jargon rarely simplifies. I've had fun with the topic. (Why get out of bed if getting stuff done isn't fun?) And I've tried to stick with "kitchen-table English"how real people talk to each other. If I stumble, don't let my shortcomings deter you in your search for simpler ways of getting work done. This is too important. The best solutions have yet to be discovered.
Simplicity works because it is based on human nature and common sense
THE JOURNEY BEHIND THIS BOOK
I stood on the shoulders of giants (see Acknowledgments, page 210), checked out the view, and reported what I saw. At the convergence of three disciplinesbusiness design, communication design, learning designI found another one hidden in plain sight: The Discipline of Common Sense
Creating clarity isn't new. Nor is the need for simplicity or the secrets of working smarter. Much of what you'll find in this book is common sense. Unfortunately, a lot of common sense basics seem to be uncommon, undisciplined, and unpracticed.