Organizational complexity is strangling innovation, productivity and engagement at an increasing rate. As companies have grown, they have added more structures, reporting relationships, communication channels, processes and rules. The ever-increasing reach of these organizational tentacles has resulted in many groups becoming lost in the complicated bureaucracy.

Attempting to see through the fog and deliver value is becoming unnecessarily challenging and is holding many organizations back from peak performance, global management consultant Jesse W. Newton argues in his book Simplify Work: Crushing Complexity to Liberate Innovation, Productivity and Engagement (Morgan James Publishing, 2019).

The time is ripe to crush complexity and simplify work. But simplifying is not easy. It is a lot easier to add complexity such as new structures, processes and rules than it is to strip something down to its core that delivers the intended function, he said.

He recently answered questions on the topic for HR Magazine‘s Book Blog.

What are the common drivers of debilitating complexity?

Organizational complexity typically stems from five areas of business: strategy, structure, systems, process and culture. Strategy can influence complexity by pulling the business too thin across numerous business units, geographies and operations. If it is not clear what the business’s mission is and how it will succeed in the future, then people can’t prioritize and get stuck in reactive firefighting.

Structure drives a lot of complexity in today’s organizations. People get lost in their global matrixes. Communication channels aren’t clear. There are multiple reporting relationships, and accountability becomes foggy. This fosters siloed protectionism—a desire to retain as many resources as possible in one little part of the business—and internal competitiveness.

Organizations today have a rich tapestry of systems. More and more systems have been added to the IT infrastructure over time, and this results in people having to navigate through multiple systems to get their work done.

We have also become too process-driven. Everything within a business has to be defined in a clear process with clear roles and responsibilities. That has resulted in people needing to understand, keep track of and adhere to predefined ways of doing everything, which strips out thinking and judgment.

Last, but not least, is culture. The habitual ways of working reinforce complexity in organizations. Do any of these sound familiar?

  • Engage everyone. Meetings are scheduled to keep broad stakeholder groups informed of work that is being completed, resulting in an excessive amount of low-value meetings.
  • Pursue perfection. A strong desire to avoid mistakes leads to unnecessary over-analysis of every piece of work, wasting time.
  • Cover-your-ass mentality. Employees copy as many people as they can in e-mail exchanges to ensure that they don’t get in trouble, resulting in e-mail overload.

How can organizations simplify?

Each company should assess where it will get the greatest performance improvement and focus on that area. An effective way to do this is to take a design-thinking approach. This includes carefully observing, asking good questions and practicing good listening. Brainstorm solutions to reveal a number of themes and then rank the top opportunities by assessing their relative impact and ease of implementation. The top few opportunities should then be prototyped, tested and improved on an ongoing iterative basis.

Organizations today have a huge opportunity to rev up their performance through crushing complexity and simplifying work. While taking the first steps might not be easy, the returns are worth it. 

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