Simplicity isn’t simple!

16 Mar 2023

On my professional journey to accelerate business agility, I’ve become an advocate of simplicity.  

Over the last three decades, I’ve expended an inordinate amount of my professional life grappling with complexity and complicatedness. Striving to render the complex less complicated, make the complicated simpler, and eliminate the unnecessary. Endeavouring to minimise those wasteful, time-consuming activities that deliver little or no value in return, but hamper one’s ability to deal adequately with the unexpected.  

Complexity and “complicatedness” 

It’s difficult to eradicate complexity as organisations face numerous difficult external challenges —everything from increasingly arduous regulations and emerging technologies to soaring customer expectations and new, nimbler competition. As a result, organisations tend to increase internal complexity (today recognised as “complicatedness”) in an attempt to thwart the external complexity they face. Such complicatedness extends throughout the organization. No doubt you’ve witnessed blurred accountabilities, ambiguous requirements, vague governance, obscure ownership, elevated administrative hurdles etc. in organisations you deal with.  

The problem with “complicatedness”  

Complicatedness, or internal complexity, hinders an organisation’s ability to respond effectively and in a timely manner to externally driven complexity. I’ve often used the analogy of blocked arteries in the body. When arteries become clogged with fatty substances called plaques, they become narrowed and hardened, restricting blood flow to the organs, something which may prove fatal unless dealt with. 

Simplifying “complicatedness” 

Striving to simplify the complex and complicated may be viewed as an arduous mission, but can bring about many benefits to individuals, organisations, and society as a whole. Here are some key reasons why this is important: 

  1. Increased understanding: When complex ideas, concepts, or systems are made simpler and more understandable, more people are able to grasp them. This can lead to increased understanding and better decision-making, both at the individual and organisational level. 

  1. Improved efficiency: Complex processes or systems can be time-consuming and resource-intensive to manage. By simplifying these processes or systems, organisations can improve efficiency and reduce costs. 

  1. Enhanced accessibility: When complex ideas or products are made simpler and easier to use, they become more accessible to a wider audience. This can lead to increased adoption and usage, and ultimately, greater impact. 

  1. Increased innovation: When complex ideas or systems are simplified, they can be more easily understood and built upon. This can lead to increased innovation and new breakthroughs in technology, science, and other fields. 

  1. Better communication: By simplifying complex ideas or systems , communication becomes clearer and more effective, which can improve collaboration and teamwork. 

In short, the pursuit of simplicity may lead to new heightened levels of understanding, innovation, and efficiency, along with enhanced accessibility and communication, permitting us to focus on what's truly important, and to deliver better results with less effort. 

These sound like worthy outcomes, wouldn’t you agree?  

Maximising ‘work not done’ 

When the Manifesto for Agile Software Development was released in 2001, it highlighted simplicity as one of the twelve principles, “Simplicity – the art of maximising the amount of work not done – is essential”. The seventeen software development thought leaders had a rational theory.  

They acknowledged that in developing and engineering software, simplicity could lead to improved user experience, making the software easier to use, simply by reducing the number of steps required to complete a task. It also helped to reduce the risk of bugs and improve performance (by reducing the complexity of the code). Also vital for simplicity was identifying a value that prioritises working software (stuff” that is valuable to customers) over comprehensive documentation (or unnecessary features and things that have little or no value). 

We can apply this logic today, to pretty much anything. Consider this: if we aim to eliminate distractions and remove any extraneous elements that do not contribute to the solution, then this makes it easier to understand and maintain the solution over time. It also enables people to work more efficiently and effectively, as we can concentrate our efforts on the key elements that deliver the highest value. Also, because we aren’t held back or slowed down by the extraneous elements, we can deliver this higher value “stuff” faster. Just imagine what organisations would be like if they achieved this! 

So why is complexity still rife?  

Today, we see complexity and complicatedness as the norm. We have become accustomed to it, maybe even immune to it.  

Evidently people are also drawn to complex things and complexity. The key reasons for this are: 

  1. Challenge and intellectual stimulation: We enjoy the quest of understanding complex ideas, systems, problems or puzzles. 

  1. Mastery: Similarly, we are motivated by the desire to master complex skills or concepts, to become an expert in a complex field. 

  1. Status: We want to become recognised as an expert in a complex field, as complexity may be associated with recognised status or prestige.  

  1. Novelty: People may be drawn to complex ideas or systems that only few understand because they are novel, intriguing or different.  

  1. Perceived value: Some associate complexity with value or quality, believing that something that is more complex is inherently better or more valuable than something that is simple. 

  1. Power and control: Appealing to some people, it's important to recognize that complexity can be a barrier to understanding and progress. 

Others view complicated systems or processes as ’just the way things are’, as things that can’t be changed. Although these systems or processes may be tricky to manage or navigate, people faced with these daily don’t want to challenge the status quo, so tolerate them.  

This internal complexity, or complicatedness, also manifesting itself in complex organisational structures, approval procedures, scorecards and metrics, is hardly ideal when we are seemingly struggling to keep up with escalating complexity in our external business environment (from customer expectations to stiffening competition).  

A history of complexity 

Complexity isn’t a recent phenomenon. The invention of the wheel in the Bronze Age made travel easier. This in turn facilitated and stimulated the creation of increasingly more complex machines. Today, we are in the depths of the fourth Industrial Revolution, so we expect more complexity. 

Long before the first Industrial Revolution, Greek philosopher, Socrates (469—399 B.C.E.) is quoted as saying: “How many things there are which I do not want.” The Socratic method laid the groundwork for Western systems of logic and philosophy and is still in use today. 

How does a statement from 2,500 years ago apply to modern organisations? Let’s break it down: 

  1. Focus on what is truly important: Organisations must consider what they truly want and need, rather than being side-tracked by things that do not align with their goals and objectives. This focuses leaders on the things that matter most and prioritises their efforts accordingly. 

  1. Better alignment: Organisations aligning their goals, processes, and systems with what is truly important will help to ensure that everyone in the organisation moves in the right direction and works towards the same objectives. 

  1. Improved decision-making: Clarity and understanding about what organisations want can enable better decisions, both at the strategic and operational levels. This helps the organisation to be more effective and avoid costly mistakes. 

  1. Reduce waste: By considering what they do not want, organisations can reflect on what doesn’t work, and identify and eliminate waste in their processes and systems. This helps them become more efficient, reduce costs, improve flow and improve their bottom line. 

  1. Increased agility: When organisations focus on what they want and avoid what they do not want, they can be more agile and responsive to changing market conditions and customer needs, helping them to remain competitive. 

Socrates' quote can also be applied to Agile, in that it is about minimalism, focusing on what is truly necessary, systematically reviewing work, and identifying areas where things are overcomplicated — with superfluous features or elements, or unnecessary. Ostensibly, the quote is in accord with the principles described in the Manifesto for Agile Software Development. 

Since the Manifesto for Agile Software Development was released in 2001, I’ve continually played around with applying simplicity in organisations. I have concluded that utilising Agile elements and practices outside of software has enabled those business areas to address complicatedness and greatly improve their overall effectiveness.  

Measuring business effectiveness 

Effectiveness can be measured, using some simple (and easily understood) metrics to reveal how well businesses are doing and any areas for improvement. We can start with three, 1) workflow efficiency (roughly how long they actively work and complete something compared to how long they wait while it’s sat in a queue), 2) cycle time (“done” work that provides value to a customer), 3) output (the total number of tasks that get completed within a fixed amount of time. 

In the 2000s, I worked with a number of UK banks, with one memorable request being for me to work with a marketing team to address performance issues. A key challenge was frequently being late to market for significant campaigns — I’m not talking a week or two late, but one or two quarters, thereby often missing the value opportunity. As a key stakeholder pointed out, there is little point launching a Christmas campaign after Easter or worse, during Summer. Using these three metrics, it was easy to find an answer to why? (and establish a case for change). 

Unpicking the Why? 

It was evident that teams were managing changing priorities, often with conflicting demands from various product teams, causing bottlenecks and workflow problems. This reduced their productivity, lowered their ability to exploit innovation or even improve dated processes, and increased dependencies and handoffs, all resulting in a decelerated delivery of marketing campaigns and programmes. They also struggled to work at a sustainable pace and were always too busy juggling numerous activities, reacting to any and all incoming requests, and rarely delivering anything they were truly proud of.  

I suspect many business areas across countless organisations face similar challenges today.  

The solution 

I seized upon the elements and practices that had worked in software development and manufacturing, mixed with more than a hint of Socrates' quote (applied to a marketing organisation). We started simplifying first, then experimenting. Initially, after some deep dive workshops, we created cross-functional teams (stable teams, like those used in product thinking, rather than frequently disbanding project teams) to reduce dependencies and handoffs. We co-created a shared purpose set-up and maintained a whiteboard-based kanban (containing a backlog of work that blended multiple initiatives, as well as recurring tasks), which made the work visible, enabling the wider team to see what was being worked on at that time and what had been completed, and most importantly, to help them prioritise what was next and what future work was coming up. 

No quick fix 

I’ve found simplicity and agility is not a quick phenomenon to achieve. It requires consistent, deliberate efforts on numerous fronts, along with steadfast motivation from those advocating the endeavour,. It ideally needs alignment at all levels of the organisational hierarchy, at the minimum people buying into the “why?”. It is also unlikely to succeed without support from key stakeholders and leadership at the strategic level.  

How admitting ignorance can help! 

Returning to Socrates, his method of communicating was interesting. Not only did he use a form of critical thinking (which uses distinct types of question to help you question your question), but he continually showcased his ignorance instead of telling people what he knew. This made it simple for people to understand things, allowing people to deliberate and reach their own logical conclusion. This method sometimes made the answers all too obvious, irritating many, and it is even suggested that it was his incessant questioning that caused his ultimate demise! 

I hope that by applying Socratic questioning to the challenge of simplicity, you will now be able to answer some fundamental questions: 

What do I mean by simplicity?  

What do I think is the main issue in achieving simplicity? 

Why is this simplicity important? 

Does this question lead to other important issues and questions? 

What would be an example of achieving simplicity? 

Has my opinion been influenced by something or someone? 

What effect would achieving simplicity have? Could it really happen or probably happen?  

What is an alternative? 

I’ll let you answer these. 

Please note blogs reflect the opinions of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the recommendations or guidance of the Agile Business Consortium.