Lisa Bodell, Founder & CEO, futurethink
In 1944, the Office of Strategic Services—forerunner to the C.I.A.— wrote a field manual for agents looking to sabotage organizations in the name of American national security. The manual included a striking strategy: complication. The agency directed saboteurs to “insist on doing everything through channels. Never permit shortcuts to be taken in order to expedite decisions. Multiply the procedures and clearances…see that three people have to approve everything where one would do.”
Back then, complication was used to sabotage an enemy, yet we’ve unconsciously turned the weapon upon ourselves. We attend unnecessary meetings because we’re worried about missing out on a decision or vote that affects us. We request more data and more reports before making a decision instead of relying on our experience and the information that’s available. We add layers of management to our org chart, slowing the flow of innovative ideas up the chain of command and the number of approvals making their way back down.
While fear can cause leaders to complicate the lives of those beneath them, simplicity improves the culture and productivity of an organization. At Apple, Steve Jobs was famous for asking his deputies a simple question: “How many times did you say ‘no’ today?” By asking it, Jobs was sending a clear message to focus and take control. Jobs didn’t want leaders coming to him for sign-offs on every decision. He didn’t want them to be scared to take action. Rather, he was giving his people authority, and he expected them to use it. If these leaders were saying “no” every day, it meant that they were making decisions on their own.
In complicated organizations, people are constantly claiming they can’t get things done because another department hasn’t signed off, or they can’t move forward because some other team hasn’t provided enough data. Leaders operating with a simplicity mindset short-circuit those complaints. They make decisions quickly and cleanly, and they inspire those they work with to do the same. They say “no” to unnecessary things to make space for work that matters.
These leaders have also gained a valuable insight: don’t try to simplify everything at once. Employees will get overwhelmed and momentum can stall. Instead, choose a key group of projects that deserve attention and focus on one at a time. When prioritizing, look for quick-win opportunities that will rally your organization around simplification. If say, your company’s travel policy is a pain point for employees but overhauling it will be a major battle, simplify another area of the business before taking on the policy. The tactics below offer a starting point for simplification:
- Reduce the number of sign-offs and approvals to two—an employee’s boss and their boss—like General Electric did.
- Eliminate reports that don’t add value (or put them on a 3-month suspension to see if anyone misses them).
- Decrease email volume by utilizing NNTR. For email topics that are FYI and don’t require a response, type NNTR (No Need To Respond) in the subject line. By utilizing this tactic, a business unit at pharmaceutical company Merck reduced email volume within its group by 20%.
- Conduct annual meeting audits. After several divisions at U.S. telecom provider Sprint reviewed every meeting it held in one year—from standing and weekly status meetings to events, off-sites, and team gatherings—the company eliminated 30% of them. Direct team leaders to conduct their own meeting audit and cancel every meeting that doesn’t add value or has outlived its original objective.
- Reduce the length of forms and remove industry jargon from contracts like Citibank has done with its mortgage documents.
- Institute Meeting-Free Wednesdays like Airbnb did.
While the above tactics can jumpstart simplification, sustaining it is equally important. Keep up momentum by regularly checking in with employees: How much progress do they think the team—and you—are making in terms of simplifying? You can ask true–false questions or have employees anonymously rate your efforts on a scale of 1 to 4. Sample questions to consider:
- Does management support my effort to simplify?
- Do my leaders articulate a clearly defined vision of what simplification is and what it will do for the organization?
- Am I encouraged to identify and eliminate redundancies or unnecessary policies and reports wherever possible? Do I encourage my team to do the same?
- Are decision-making processes clear and quick? Can I say with confidence that they don’t require excessive layers of approval?
For every team member to buy into simplification, messaging from you needs to be consistent with the example that leadership sets for their own teams. Role-model what you want to see from others by building simplicity into the way you live and work. Share your excitement for clearing away the meaningless and the useless, encouraging and rewarding others for doing the same. Regularly communicate the relationship between your own success and simplicity.
A successful simplification program isn’t about making your employees do more with less. It’s about enabling them to do more of the work that matters—and less soul-sucking meetings, emails, and reports. It’s about removing layers and expediting decisions instead of insisting on more data and sign-offs. Investing in simplicity can prevent complication from sabotaging your organization, and set it on a clear, actionable path toward achieving its goals.