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Why Simple Wins: Interview with Lisa Bodell

Feature Article | June 16, 2017 by Fawn Fitter

When futurist Lisa Bodell tried to teach Fortune 500 companies around the world how to nurture innovation, she repeatedly hit the same roadblock: no matter how open people were to her suggestions, they didn’t seem to have time to implement them.

The reason, Bodell discovered, had little to do with a heavy workload or ambitious objectives. Rather, employees spent more time submitting to complex mandatory procedures than developing and implementing new ideas. Bodell’s new book, Why Simple Wins, argues that if companies want more space and time for innovation, they need to chip away those calcified layers of process.

We asked Bodell to explain how companies can battle complexity and why she believes the fight needs to be elevated to the C-suite.

Q. What do you mean by needless complexity?

A. People can’t innovate because they’re drowning in mundane, outdated processes that were initially put in place for good reasons but have calcified over time and enslaved them. The average workday is 45% meetings, 23% e-mail, and 18% nonproductive work. That leaves only 14%—6.6 hours a week, less than one full workday—for meaningful work.

It’s not that we don’t need reports and meetings. But we’re addicted to doing instead of thinking. Steve Jobs famously declared in 1997, “I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.”

Who is responsible for making work so complicated?

We all play a role. We consider being busy a badge of honor. Doing more and having more responsibilities are equated with value. But that means no one gets rewarded for doing or managing less, and simplifying things is seen as removing value rather than making time to create new value.

The problem with complexity is that everyone thinks everyone else is the problem: “I don’t want to go to everyone else’s meetings, but I want everyone to come to mine.” Or: “I can’t get anything done in a timely way because three other people have to approve all my decisions.”

You maintain that complexity is driven by fear—ultimately, the fear of doing something to harm your career or the business. What can executives do to combat that?

Leaders have to lead by example, so give people permission to subtract. Get rid of stupid rules. Eliminate redundancies.

People ask for five reports on the same topic—or ask their bosses to sign off on decisions they’re authorized to make without approval—because they’re protecting themselves against accusations of being slipshod. Don’t just allow people to make decisions; insist on it in all but a limited number of specific situations. To determine what the exceptions are, ask yourself what’s the smallest number of people you could feasibly require to sign off on something, how much money you can let people spend without requiring paperwork, and what requirements you could immediately eliminate from your approval processes with no significant impact.

In my experience, the more responsibility employees take for their own decisions, the more invested they are in the outcome. The less time your organization spends managing who signs off on decisions, the more time it has to make and execute those decisions.

When is a process or procedure simple enough?

The ultimate goal is for your processes to be MURA: minimal, understandable, repeatable (meaning scalable rather than customized), and accessible (meaning transparent to everyone involved).

Is it possible to overcorrect and end up oversimplifying? How do you know when your company has gone too far?

Your processes should be as MURA as possible, but the key phrase is “as possible.” You’ve gone too far when you go to implement a process and everyone has too many questions because you’ve lost sight of what people actually need to complete the process. There’s no point condensing a hundred-page contract to one page if you then have to spend hours explaining every part. Ten pages is simple enough if that is necessary to make the document understandable.

There are a number of ways to measure your progress. One example might be “decrease in time needed to finalize and approve the annual budget.” But the metrics you use will depend on what your organization is trying to accomplish.

You propose a role of “chief simplification officer.” Why add a role when you are trying to simplify things?

Companies drowning in complexity need someone to take the lead in defining what simplicity means and giving people tactics to act on. Although most companies haven’t elevated simplicity to the C-suite yet, I am encouraged by widespread recognition that simplicity requires a champion—if not at the top, then at least at a high level. For example, Merck Canada created a “head of simplicity” position, and as a result, the company is now actively renegotiating its complex processes. That includes eliminating, outsourcing, or simplifying as many of those processes as possible.

That said, any manager can make simplification an ongoing process. That’s how to begin to weave simplicity into your long-term strategy and transform your corporate culture into one that ensures everyone spends more time on meaningful and innovative work instead of mere busywork.

This story originally appeared on the Digitalist.

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