Empathy Lines the Path to Simple

“No” has become the most popular word in most organizations.

Can we try something new? No. Can we rethink a few corporate policies? No. Can we get outside our comfort zone and go for growth? No.

It’s not that leaders don’t want to innovate. Most do. But complexity in all its forms has emerged as the most intractable CEO issue of our time. What was necessary to start great businesses has been suffocated by what was necessary to scale them.

Almost any person in the global workforce can relate to this situation. We all started with a dream to do something in our lives and careers. But over time we became driven not by what’s possible, but rather by what’s doable. Goals became key performance indicators. Inspiration became adaptation. The dream became, well, work.

I remember my earliest days running a small business. I saw my customers every day. Having empathy for their needs wasn’t some exercise; it was my entire business strategy. I had to know them, understand them and serve them beyond their expectations. I didn’t need data scientists to know when new products were needed. Customers told me and I responded.

But now most CEOs have become encircled in layers of management that directly impede this kind of empathy. Instead of seeing customers, we’re stuck playing office – a depressing mix of spreadsheets, presentation slides and seemingly endless conference calls. Some analyst reports I’ve seen say big companies can have up to 20 layers of management. Other experts say best in class companies have 7 layers.

From my standpoint, organizations shouldn’t be structured like onions and it shouldn’t make us cry when we try to pull them apart.

What’s worse? Complexity is only getting worse. Research from Bain, the Economist and others paints a gloomy picture. Executives say business is becoming more complex and, significantly, no one knows who is accountable for it.

All this complexity should have been the natural runway for technology. But candidly, the CEOs I speak with tell me they have too many disparate applications from too many different technology companies. The applications don’t integrate and exacerbate the silos that have been built up over time. Leaders see technology as an ally, but they aren’t interested in the buzzwords that dominate the IT industry today – they only make an already complex situation worse.

So the question is, “haven’t we had enough?” Are we ready to fight back against complexity?

The way forward in this fight is for leaders to focus on running simple.

Published reports show consumers are 75 percent more likely to recommend brands that offer simple. A significant percentage of those consumers said they’d even pay more for simple. And simple companies have been rewarded by the capital markets, outperforming their peers by 100 percent. So there is a clear business case.

But running simple is more than a slogan or a business objective. This is an organizing principle that must galvanize CEOs and their teams to cut through the layers and restore growth as the unifying priority. Empathy will line the path to simplifying everything and technology will enable it.

Let’s start where I started thirty years ago: with empathy for the customer. Today we know that customers can do business pretty much however they choose. In person, via phone or on device are all viable options to transact business of almost any kind. So if we want to make customer experiences run simple, why shouldn’t we have the same view of each customer regardless of how they choose to do business? We should and we can. This isn’t about getting e-mail addresses to spam customers with endless marketing gimmicks. It’s about respecting their choices and responding better to their needs.

And why should it be so hard to listen to customers on social networks when it’s so easy for them to talk about their experiences?

Empathy for our colleagues means giving them more than just the promise of a fulfilling career. We have to stop expecting people to waste precious time on insignificant tasks. It shouldn’t take 30 steps and four applications to plan a trip, file an expense report and ask for a few days off. These things should be simple and intuitive so people can invest their time in making the difference they aspire to make.

Empathy for our partners means re-imagining business-to-business collaboration beyond paper invoices. Checks are centuries old by some measures, yet remain the standard vehicle for transactions in some countries. That’s crazy. If we can connect a teenager in Sierra Leone with his friends in the U.S., we should be able to do business in a network, as well. In fact, more than 1.5 million businesses already do.

I run a global company and have put this challenge to my own colleagues. We can’t run simple with new committees, weekly conference calls and requests to complete spreadsheets. We have to embrace what it took to start and forget some of the things we did to scale.

Can we dream again? Yes. Can we innovate? Yes. Can we grow? Yes.

But only if we run simple.

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SAP’s Bill McDermott: “We Can’t Let Complexity Win”
A Time For Founders
Accelerating a Culture of Innovation

This story originally appeared on SAP Business Trends.