Manage complexity by mastering simplicity

Paul Heagen Uncategorized Leave a Comment


Life is complex. 

Did you easily agree with that statement?  Sure feels that way, right?

Actually, I’m not sure life itself has become more complex. I wonder instead if we have allowed ourselves to think it’s complex. Or that we are so wired to stimulus we lose sight of what matters and what, really, does not.

It’s seductive to associate busyness with success. Commotion is not the same as locomotion. Our capacity to warehouse and verbalize complexity competes as the new standard for personal value and leadership. Connecting all those dots and keeping all the right plates spinning at the right rate does summon the best of our mental acuity, but is that the highest and best use of the intellect?

The harder and more elegant task is to master simplicity. 

Honing something down to its most basic elements is a taxing exercise, but complexity is costly as well. A CEO who served as my mentor early in my career used to wryly observe: “The king sneezes and the kingdom slays a forest to make a Kleenex.” His point was that he understood that what he said, even if in passing or an idle comment, would likely trigger work down through the organization. Stuff gets pretty complicated as those marbles rattle their way down through the organizational maze. Complexity begets more complexity — and can paralyze an organization.

Driving to simplicity in our strategy, our values, our decisions, our behaviors is a critical and often overlooked discipline. I see companies with values statements on the walls that detail ten or more essential qualities; I am reminded each time of another one I saw that spoke more clearly in its profound simplicity: “Do the right thing.” The latter is less prescriptive, but it goes deep and challenges people to better understand the tendons between their actions and the most resonant of human virtues.

We would be well-served in taking the accepted simplicity of a vision statement (assuming it is more refined that most of the bland ones you see) and making that a strategy. It ignites the right behaviors in the organization and aligns people around purpose. A CEO of a franchise business I recently met has four or five simple standards for selecting franchise owners. That’s all. He and his team arrived at these standards because they gritted through the rigor of simplifying their process to smelt out the essentials.

Leonardo DaVinci was one of the most fascinating geniuses in the history of mankind. His genius extended from imagining the first car and bicycle to early notions of winged and helicopter air flight to the conversion of linear to rotary motion to the incredible nuances of the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper.

For all of his mental agility in so many pursuits, it was he who said: Simplicity is the greatest sophistication.

(The candle stands in my feature photo are by the world-renowned woodturner Rude Osolnik. I have a set of the last ones he made. Despite enormous complexity in figuring out how to make them, Rude’s simple expression of his art stands as a testament to how simplicity can inspire.)


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