Ron Ashkenas believes simplicity improves results and leads to competitive advantages – and he shows you how to achieve it.
Renowned business author Ron Ashkenas shows you how to simplify your business by detailing how companies both create and excise dreaded complexity. Ashkenas shows managers many effective ways to buck up and fix their own bad habits. His diagnostic tools will help those who want to start productive dialogues in pursuit of simplicity. You can readily convert Ashkenas’ suggestions about what managers should or shouldn’t do into a developmental continuum you can use to measure your firm’s progress toward simplification.
The Complexity Trap
Whether you are the CEO of a large multinational corporation or a middle manager at a small firm, you cannot afford to allow complexity into your organization. Complexity compromises results, hampers employees and confuses customers. Complexity often develops due to leaders’ behaviors and aspirations, so executives must work strategically to undo it.
When you tweak a structure within your organization, you start a chain reaction of new problems, costs and layers of complexity. When you add a product or service, you create to-do lists for marketers, lawyers and designers. When managers change a process without negotiating aligned goals and intentions, complexity increases. If managers aren’t incredibly careful – for example, if they don’t define a task or timeline – they generate complexity, even inadvertently.
Complexity doesn’t come out of thin air; bosses build it into an organization’s design. Executives often err by prioritizing structure over strategy, but Ashkenas asserts, strategy is job one.
The forces and sources of complexity never sleep.Ron Ashkenas
When managers reshape jobs or structures to suit their current personnel, they build in adjustments now that cause trouble later. Your company is not a “machine with a static blueprint.” You want to both design for movement and simplify your plans.
Chop away at hierarchy by increasing your managers’ realm of influence to give them more people to supervise and less control over them individually. Managers must influence and lead their staff members as employees must grow and take charge of their own work.
Managers try to please customers by continually tweaking products and services. Firms that add rather than subtract products increase complexity. Thus, “product-related changes” can hurt your bottom line. For example, if you change a product label, you activate an army of designers, advertisers and analysts. If the customer’s assembly of your product is difficult or the product doesn’t work, your company will suffer from support complexity, because consumers will want you to fix any problems.
[It] takes a special kind of intelligence to counter design complexity and create simple designs with fewer features.Ron Ashkenas
Your product’s value connects to your buyers’ experience of it. If it doesn’t function well with related or integrated products, your system is too complex.
Be aware that if you design your product with an engineer’s rather than a customer’s eye, you will end up with a product that only an engineer can use.
As you engage continually with your marketing unit to advertise each new variety of a product, for example, and with your finance department – to keep track of each variety – be certain that your customers love each choice. Consumer engagement can yield products that meet people’s actual needs – not your complex interpretation of their needs.
Processes can be either a source of simplicity or a swamp. An international company, for example, wants consistency; but local managers must apply standards that make sense in their location. This dissonance causes complexity.
Effective communication…creates a central nervous system that allows an organization to get work done; poor communication creates enormous complexity as signals are blocked, misunderstood or misdirected.Ron Ashkenas
To simplify your processes, learn from the best practices in your organization or at other firms. Invite their managers to brainstorm about processes and practices and send your supervisors on site visits.
Leaders cause or solve complexity by their decisions about organizational design, products and procedures.
For example, the way you establish strategy may cause complexity. One potential pitfall involves the relentless search for the optimal strategy. You won’t find it. The quest for the ideal strategy can cause complexity if you collect too much data, make too many promises or insist on excess analysis.
If you can accomplish your mission with fewer steps, clearer processes, greater customer alignment and less wasted motion, then you will be at a competitive advantage.Ron Ashkenas
Managers define goals – another common practice that can go wrong. Some lay out simple objectives that motivate people. Others posit fuzzy or abstract ambitions. Your goal-setting can go awry if you promote a target and then allow it to slide; if you hint that you don’t care about that target; if you can’t or don’t penalize noncompliance or if you shoot for a result that you can’t measure.
You will undermine your objectives if you negotiate them by letting people avoid other work they should attend to in exchange for completing the goals you had set.
A Business Imperative
Position simplicity as a business imperative. Make a clear case for simplicity and promote people who make it happen. Conversely, get rid of people who impede it or create complexity.
If you are serious about simplification, you need to be prepared to keep at it, over and over, for as long as your organization exists.Ron Ashkenas
Your actions matter. If you tolerate ineffective meetings and meaningless emails, if you ignore customer demands for simplification and don’t lead change, you are rejecting simplicity and unknowingly sponsoring complexity.
Your company’s move toward simplicity always starts with you.
Clean It Up
This book on simplicity is wonderfully straightforward. Ashkenas helps you see the mess, then he helps you clean it up with a clear-eyed simplification strategy written in straightforward and – yes – simple prose. Ashkenas is descriptive and pragmatic. He outlines the flaws in typical systems and tells you how to fix them. Every manager at every level can use his insights to make their company and the world a better – or at least simpler – place while improving the bottom line. Ashkenas’s passion might be simplicity as the title promises, but he is far from simplistic.
Ron Ashkenas co-wrote Rapid Results! How 100-Day Projects Build the Capacity for Large-Scale Change with Robert H. Schaffer and the Harvard Business Review Leader’s Handbook with Brook Manville. He co-authored The GE Work-Out: How to Implement GE’s Revolutionary Method for Busting Bureaucracy and Attacking Organizational Problems – Fast! with Dave Ulrich and Steve Kerr. He also contributed to The Boundaryless Organization: Breaking the Chains of Organization Structure.