We Love Simplicity, But Do We Know What It Really Means?

Management Consultant and Futurist

What do you at work all day? If the answer is "go to meetings and respond to emails," you are just like the many respondents interviewed by innovation expert Lisa Bodell. That response is remarkably consistent, she says, no matter the country or level of employment, suggesting that global work culture has become homogenized by international markets and communications technology.

Of course nobody's primary interest in their career is attending meetings and answering emails. People want to do meaningful work, and when rote tasks stand in their way, both the organization and individual job satisfaction suffer. The solution, says Bodell, is simplicity. But simplicity means more than minimalism, and simply stripping processes down doesn't guarantee real simplicity, which is defined by four key components:

First, be as minimal as possible, meaning get rid of extraneous parts. If you have a weekly meeting, can you do it biweekly? If you answer emails throughout the day, can you reserve one half hour in the morning and one in the afternoon, allowing the rest of your time to be spent doing meaningful work?

Second, be as understandable as possible. Confusing email chains and unspecific instruction can waste employees' valuable time, so be clear with your instruction and responses, and if you don't know the answer, simply say you'll revisit the issue at a later time.

Third, be repeatable as possible. As Bodell says: "You want teachers to make things repeatable in a classroom so we benefit from best practices. You want pilots, no matter what cockpit they go into to have the same experience so that they can fly the plane."

Finally, be as accessible as possible. Transparency is a good way to win customers and, in our age of democratized media, leveraging the power and wisdom of the crowd by creating open-source products is a way to scale innovation.

Lisa Bodell's book isWhy Simple Wins.

  • Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

Lisa Bodell:  Everyone says that they want to innovate but then myself and my teams would go into companies and the very people that hired us to come in and help them innovate were the very people that were holding us back from doing it when we got there. And I thought why? And it was this whole idea of risk, fear, power, control, risk aversion. And I started to ask everybody that I met a very simple question to get at the problem of why people were not able to innovate the way that they should. Here was the question: I asked them what do you spend your day doing? And do you know what the answer was? I wasn't surprised by the uniqueness of the answer, I was surprised by the absolute consistency of it.

So if I talked to let's say 100,000 people a year across all different countries, companies, industries, levels within the organization and I asked them what did they spend their day doing? Do you know what they say? Meetings and emails. Now, I believe that people get up everyday to do meaningful things. I don't have a single friend that wakes up, looks at their inbox and feels extra popular because they have more people that have contacted them. People don't want to spend their day doing that, they want to work on work that matters. So I think that getting to work that is simpler and eliminating those complexities or mundane tasks are not just going to make people more productive at work but they're going to be more satisfied, they're going to have a sense of purpose and our businesses, the results that we have there, are going to be dramatically better because of it.

So what I did is I tried to come up with a very insistent definition for simplicity and I realize it's less of a definition and more around guidelines and I think there's four components to simplicity. The first is being as minimal as possible. Second is understandable as possible. The third is repeatable as possible. And the final is accessible as possible. Now, most people just think of the first part minimal, making it less than. And I think that that's true, but there's so much more than just that. Being able to minimize something, get rid of parts, that's a good first step with simplicity. The second piece is understandable and that really gets to clarity. We use so much jargon, so many catch phrases, so many more words than we need to making it as understandable as possible so we can get time back is key. The next thing is repeatable. And repeatable is important so we stop making everything so custom, so one off and it also lets us leverage best practices. You want teachers to make things repeatable in a classroom so we benefit from best practices. You want pilots, no matter what cockpit they go into to have the same experience so that they can fly the plane.

And then the last part is accessible. And that's really important because that's about transparency. When you look at companies like Progressive Insurance that made it transparent how they do their pricing versus competitors, that's a real benefit. When you look at Google when they allowed everyone to use their code so others could innovate along with them to make their products better, that's the benefit of making something accessible and simple. So there's more than just making something minimal, if you do those four components, minimal, understandable, repeatable and accessible, that's a great framework for you to approach everything that you do within your work.

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Big Think Edge helps organizations get smarter, faster by catalyzing conversation around the topics most critical to 21st century business success. Led by the world’s foremost experts, our dynamic learning programs are short-form, mobile, and immediately actionable.