Simplicity – the ultimate sophistication

We’ve been working on our values lately – the things that as a team, guide our decisions, get us up and ready to go on a wet Wednesday morning, that fill us with energy and generally help us.

One of the things that it has confirmed to us is that this isn’t about values that other people think are right or ones that our customers and colleagues might expect – it was about taking what was there and already important and amplifying and making it explicit.

Gosh, that sounds good.

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One of the values that came out of that process was simplicity. And we like the quote from Leonardo da Vinci that we’ve used for the title of this piece.

The effect of living simplicity to the full has been clearer communication, faster decision making and more fun. How can we make this simple has become an important question. It’s not about dumbing anything down – it is about knowing that elite performance has its roots in the discipline of applying simple recipes with consistent dedication, passion and value!

We have spoken to many of you how world class rowers will be encouraged by their coaches to work on their hand position – with constant reminders to do so – even though – forget that, actually because – it is such a fundamental success factor.

As Ali said, “the fight is won or lost far away from witnesses – behind the lines, in the gym, and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights…” Working hard in the gym, on the basics, keeping it simple – and then under the lights it looks like magic….

We find that simplicity has the same effect on our customers – many of who operate in complex, complicated, interdependent, matrix worlds. One thing that can – and probably must remain simple – are the concepts and habits which underpin elite performance.

The world class athletes and teams with whom we work are great at simplicity – they focus on becoming great at the basics and are not tempted to do something shiny and new just because, well, it looks a little more, shiny and new. It can be tempting to find an excuse not to practise the basics – a choice which often means that you are choosing not to win.

You know when you buy a new car or start thinking about buying a particular model and suddenly you see them everywhere – almost as if the very thought of it has increased their number? Well since we started to think about simplicity we’ve started to see the benefit of it in lots of places – and the downsides of making things complex.

Unnecessary complexity slows things down, makes them inefficient, uses up resources that could be effectively deployed elsewhere and reduces control.

So what to do?

Well as usual some questions might help – some of these are drawn from an article in Harvard Business Review on simplicity which obviously only appeared because we were thinking about it.

  • Think about new products and services you’re creating. Do you need to be an industry insider or expert to understand it properly? If you were to explain it to someone at a dinner party who know nothing about your business, would they get it first time?
  • How easily could everyone in your business clearly and accurately describe the strategy? Would it be described in the same way? How easily could they tell you what that means for them in their role?
  • Managers want to feel in control and know what’s going on – how much is want to know and how much is need to know in order to deliver a great performance? What could you simplify and keep the necessary control?
  • If the unnecessary complexity in the business was eliminated, how much would productivity increase? And how much more accountability would there be?

This is what one of the GB rowers talked to us about in the lead up to Beijing:

“When it comes to racing, if I can’t write what I need to do in three words on my hand, then it’s just not simple enough – the more simple I can make it, the better I know I’m going to perform….know what you want out of it. Keep it simple If it is not unbelievably simple, then it is not simple enough.

Chuck all the crap out and ensure that you are working on your strengths, and boat moving things (not pretty things) and that your head is totally clear. Don’t let anything else in…”

And what simple means to us in our world? In our values it says this:

“The world’s a complicated place. So, ask yourself, ‘what benefit is there in me making it any more complex?’  We keep things simple because, well, we are. Whenever anyone uses a long word in the office, they’re asked to stand in the naughty corner until they find a simpler way of explaining themselves. We’ve always believed in our ability to help people do what they can do, but don’t.  See. Simple. “

Need some hard numbers? HBR quotes a case study on Nortel. 3000 simplification and improvement ideas were generated. 900 were implemented and $14 million saved. That’s simple too.