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
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:
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.
#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
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.
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:
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
Characteristic #6:
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
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.
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?

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.
new book, Why Simple Wins, is available
everywhere. Explore her secret sauce for
innovation at futurethink.com.