Thursday, January 5, 2017

6 Essential Characteristics for Leading Simplification

Guest post from Lisa Bodell:

As leaders, we’re responsible for setting the tone of our organization through policy and strategy, as well as our behavior. I believe that leaders have an obligation to work efficiently and effectively so that others do the same, creating a virtuous cycle of simplicity. I also believe that when simplification is an operating principle, it can guide leaders both in big, risky decisions and in daily priorities.

Companies that achieve the Golden Rule of Simplicity — “I will value others’ time as I expect them to value mine” — can harness a distinctly competitive edge in an era of complexity. Through a decade of innovation-training work with global leaders (and in researching my new book, Why Simple Wins), I’ve identified the unique mindset possessed by leaders who succeed in simplification. Comprising that mindset are the following six leadership characteristics.

Characteristic #1: Courage
When Dave Lewis became CEO at European grocery store giant Tesco in 2014, the company was struggling. Consumer behavior had changed: people were shopping more frequently and for fewer items at smaller stores like Lidl and Aldi.

Lewis recognized that shopping at Tesco had become a chore. Customers shopping for a single product—ketchup, for example—were faced with dozens of brands, flavors, and types. (Tesco had 28 different ketchups—Aldi only one.) To help Tesco identify which products to eliminate, Lewis hired Boston Consulting Group. He gave them a mandate: cut the variety of products by 30% (from 90,000 items to 65,000). Lewis anticipated blowback from customers (“You’re going to discontinue my brand of coffee?”) and from suppliers, which would likely charge more for the remaining brands they delivered to Tesco’s shelves.

It took courage for Lewis to stay true to his mission, but he did. A year later, the company’s first Christmas season beat financial expectations.

Characteristic #2: Minimalism
To drive simplicity, leaders must understand the value of paring things back. They need to envision how a simpler company will be more efficient, productive, and profitable. They need to embrace the wisdom of minimalism.

It’s easy to demand more, more, more, but what could it mean for your business if you sacrificed a third of your product offerings? We rarely see the harm in adding new functionality to a website, a new option to a service plan, or a new series of internal meetings. But those sorts of additions do have a cost, even if it’s not readily apparent on a balance sheet.

Characteristic #3: Results Orientation
Smart leaders know that successful simplification isn’t just about making do with less, or making people do more with less. It’s about enabling employees to do more of the work they’re excited to complete (not just more work). Leaders with a simplicity mindset view simplicity as a means for making the organization and its people more effective.

A few years ago, Jeff Spencer, then executive director of strategy for Merck Canada, created a long-term strategy for a culture of simplicity. A survey of the company’s employees in many different levels and functions had revealed that people felt hampered by too many meetings, e-mails, and, most of all, by systems over which they had little control.

These issues caused people to focus inwardly, rather than on the company’s customers and competitors, so Spencer looked for ways to engage employees in simplifying their own work rather than focusing on “the system.” Traditionally, the organization had lacked a clear, efficient system by which field-based representatives could provide feedback to the marketing department, but a few months into the effort, the organization had its first breakthrough.

Teams collaborated to create an e-mail-based, fast-response system by which representatives could provide marketing with customer feedback and other observations. These were compiled, reviewed by marketing, and acted upon. Since these insights sprang directly from customer feedback, marketing was able to develop responses that more closely addressed customers’ specific needs.

For the first time, employees were directly contributing to a broader simplicity culture. And they were becoming conscious of the many subtle yet insidious ways that each employee can layer on additional complexity.

Characteristic #4: Focus
Leaders with a simplicity mindset refuse to get bogged down by distractions. They also don’t let the doubters get in the way of their plans. While simplicity benefits for the company as a whole, it often challenges certain individuals and groups whose authority is rooted in inefficient and overly complex rules, processes, and systems.

Focus is especially crucial for leaders of young companies, since these organizations tend to take on layers of complication as they grow. Leaders must have the fortitude and determination to stick to simplicity—and they must constantly remind employees’ that their work lives will improve if things are streamlined.

Characteristic #5: Personal Engagement
A few years ago, my firm took on a client in the publishing industry. He was a decent guy, had a senior role in the HR department, and wanted our help building new innovation skills and improving the team’s morale. Yet there was a problem: while he talked a good game, my client wasn’t walking the walk. He was all too eager to tell me how other departments around the company were demanding reports that had no real value. But he wouldn’t acknowledge that he was also assigning busywork to his own people.

If you’re a leader hoping to instill an ethos of simplification, you need to exemplify, empower, and reinforce the behaviors associated with simplification. If you’re not prepared to simplify your own work environment, you have no right to impose it on those who work for you.

Characteristic #6: Decisiveness
As Steve Jobs’ right-hand man and Apple’s chief design officer, Jony Ive is credited with some of Apple’s most iconic creations, including the iPod, iPad, and Apple Watch. In order to get the people working for him to set aside distractions, Jobs would ask deputies like Ive a simple question: “How many times did you say no today?”

Jobs was empowering Ive and his colleagues to take control. Jobs didn’t want Ive coming to him for sign-offs on every marginally significant decision. He didn’t want Ive to be scared to take action. Rather, Jobs was giving Ive authority, and he expected him to use it. If Ive was saying “no” each day, it meant that he was making decisions on his own volition.

Leaders who are driving simplification must lay aside the need to seek consensus. Complicated organizations tend to be overloaded with people who claim they can’t get things done because some other department hasn’t signed off or another team hasn’t sent them the specs. Leaders operating in a simplicity mindset short-circuit those complaints. They make decisions quickly and cleanly, and they inspire those around them to do the same.

All six of these leadership qualities can be cultivated with a strong commitment and vision for simplification. When leaders embrace this mindset, we affirm that how we invest our time matters as much as how we invest our money. We’re also affirming the Golden Rule of Simplicity, which shifts our focus away from low-value work and toward what our clients or customers need.

Originating at the top, simplification requires a leadership quality that’s often in short supply: courage. It requires a leap of faith, the belief that freeing people to do higher-level thinking will pay back dividends. And it requires a mindset—the will, foresight, and fortitude to push simplicity through. Do you as a leader have this mindset? If not, why?


Lisa Bodell is a global keynote speaker, and the founder and CEO of futurethink, an innovation-training firm. She is the author of the best-selling book “Kill the Company,” which was voted Best Business Book by USA Book News and Booz & Co. Her new book, Why Simple Wins, is available everywhere. Explore her secret sauce for innovation at

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