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December 7, 2009

News & Opinion: Simply Effective

By: Dylan Schleicher @ 3:00 PM – Filed under: Management & Workplace Culture

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Simply Effective: How to Cut Through Complexity in Your Organization and Get Things Done, is the title of the new book by Ron Ashkenas. After reading through an advance copy, I sent Mr. Ashkenas a few questions about the process and the challenges of simplifying an organization. It's a great read, and something anyone at any company should read to get a grasp on keeping things focused. With all the technology and competitive challenges increasing daily, this is important stuff to keep in mind, and the book advises clearly and with purpose.
Check out the brief Q&A below, and pick up copies for your team here. The more people on board, the stronger the results will be.
What is a complicated organization, and how did they get that way?
I've never met a manager who has intentionally tried to make his or her organization more complex. But it happens anyway. Some of it is natural and inevitable -- the addition of new technology, shifting business models, changing regulations, global competition, etc. But much of the complexity in organizations is self-generated by managers through the ways that they structure the various units, construct the product portfolio, shape the operating processes, and provide day-to-day guidance and direction. The end result is an organization where it is difficult to get things done - where it takes too long and costs too much to serve customers; where employees are frustrated and overloaded; and where managers feel out of control. That's a complicated organization.
Some readers of the book might not be in a position to simplify their entire organization. How can they make some changes without feeling defeated?
You don't have to be the CEO to drive simplification. You can attack complexity in your own day-to-day work and with your colleagues. The starting point is to admit that you are a source of complexity, either in what you do, or by being complicit in reinforcing the complexity of others. The book provides a checklist of managerial behaviors that can potentially cause complexity -- such as asking for too much information, or not being careful about email circulation, or creating presentations that don't have a clear message. Using this checklist, you can hold a mirror up to yourself so that you can make your own improvements. Then go through the same process with a group of colleagues -- either people who work for you or with you. Engage in a dialogue about complexity -- and together you can begin to make a difference.
Can simplifying be perceived by higher management as non-doing? What are some key ways to work and communicate to avoid misunderstanding?
Most senior managers focus on what needs to be accomplished and not on how it actually gets done. In fact, if you can achieve results in a simpler way -- which reduces cost and increases speed -- then higher management will probably see this positively. But it's important to emphasize that simplification is not about doing less work, but more about doing the right work -- work that adds value, that has meaning, and that is directly connected to what your customers need. Non-doing the wrong things is probably the right thing to do!
How can companies consolidate tasks and departments without overburdening staff?
Reorganizing in a way that creates greater simplicity is not just about consolidating structures and tasks. In fact, if that's all that happens, staff will be overburdened. So to avoid this kind of overload, companies need to start with a clear vision of what they are trying to accomplish (why consolidate? what will be different? what are the cost and service goals to be achieved?). Then they need to engage the people involved in how to make this happen -- to get their views about process changes, technology support, elimination of lower-value tasks, etc. There are a number of tools, many of which are well-known, that are referenced in the book to help managers and staff to do this (such as process-mapping, Work-Out, and Lean). The key is to make simplification an ongoing imperative as the organization forms and re-forms over time.
As the economy, or simply a company's personal growth, improves, how can a company stay focused on simplifying, and utilize it as a long term strategy?
Let's face it, the forces of complexity are not going away as the economy improves. Nor is competition going to get any easier. Getting things done faster, with fewer steps and less cost, is always going to be a competitive advantage. At the same time, having motivated people, who feel good about what they are accomplishing, and see a direct line of sight between their efforts and the company's success, will also be an advantage. And that's what simplification brings -- stronger results and energized people. The book provides many cases studies of companies -- such as ConAgra Foods, Cisco, Vanguard, GSK, and Zurich Financial Services -- that have succeeded at least in part because they made simplification not just a nice to have value, but a real business imperative. That's the challenge for every company, no matter where they are in the business cycle -- to make simplification a driver for business success.

About Dylan Schleicher


Dylan Schleicher has been a part of the 800-CEO-READ claque since 2003. Even though he's stayed on at the company, he has not stayed put. After beginning in shipping & receiving, he joined customer service and accounting before moving into his current, highly elliptical orbit of duties overseeing the ChangeThis and In the Books websites, the company's annual review of books and in-house design. He lives with his wife and two children in the Washington Heights neighborhood on Milwaukee's West Side.