Think about your average workday. How many meetings do you have? How many discussions—planned or unplanned? How many people do you encounter?
If you’re like most business owners, you deal with a lot of ideas and personalities, which means things can get very complex, very quickly. Unless we have systems in place, our days tend to get more complicated over time. We eventually end up in a state where nothing worthwhile is getting done.
Unfortunately, that’s the state most of us live in—lots of activity, but not much actually getting done.
Is Simplicity the Answer?
In their excellent book “Extreme Ownership,” former Navy Seals Jocko Willink and Leif Babin lay out the leadership framework they teach. It’s also the one the Navy Seals use. One of the key concepts is “simple.” That mindset and approach is critical if you want to be a successful leader. Whether you’re leading a team into battle or trying to achieve a challenging business objective, you need your entire team to be engaged and aligned with what you’re trying to do. That means you need to have plans and tactics that are simple enough to communicate and execute when things start to go wrong. And they will go wrong.
In combat, hesitation or confusion will likely get you or someone on your team killed. It’s critical that everyone knows exactly what’s going on, what the objective is and how to get there. Things will still go wrong, but it’s much more likely you’ll be able to adjust if everyone starts on the same page and has a clear idea of what you’re trying to achieve.
In business, you’re not typically dealing with life and death, but you’re still dealing with high-stakes situations. Confusion, indecisiveness or crossed efforts can all lead to failure. Keeping things as simple as possible minimizes those issues and allows your team to quickly adjust as new things are thrown at them.
Is Simple Too Simple?
If being “simple” is really one of the keys to success, then why aren’t more leaders focusing on it? For starters, most leaders are experts in their field, and experts have a tendency to focus on complexities. As an expert, they already know all the fundamentals and have mastered them so they are naturally drawn to more complicated solutions. That might be okay if they only deal with other experts. However, if your team includes people with varying levels of expertise in whatever it is that you do, then you must account for everyone on the team. The plans and tactics need to work across the board from an hourly frontline worker who just started last week to the CEO.
Another obstacle to embracing simplicity is that it comes across as too simple. The reality is that a simple solution is actually much harder to develop:
“Complexity is your enemy. Any fool can make something complicated. It is hard to keep things simple.” – Richard Branson
Simple definitely doesn’t mean easy. Ask any baseball player or golfer how easy their sport is. The idea behind the game may be very simple—hit a ball with a stick. However, it takes years of practice and lots of talent to be really good at it. The concept is simple, but the execution is not necessarily easy.
What About Your Business?
How does “simple” apply to a typical business environment? The odds are good that you and your team are currently doing that could be simplified.
An example that I often see (and was an example in Willink’s and Babin’s book) relates to incentive plans. In some corporate environments, the staff literally have to break out a calculator or a spreadsheet to figure out what their annual bonus will be. If it’s not immediately clear how your staff can make more money, most of them will throw their hands up and just work on whatever happens to be in front of them, which typically doesn’t work out well for the company or the individual.
Another example would be a process, either informal or formal, that you or your team uses to handle common situations. If you haven’t taken the time to really think through how to handle something and document that approach, the odds are you have a much more complicated or dynamic process than is really needed. There’s a reason why airlines have developed simple checklists for pilots getting ready for take-off. Having a simple, documented process for things you do every day or every week is a great step towards making things simpler.
Take a few minutes to think about a typical week in your business. Of all the things you and your team work on, what are the top two or three things that stand out as challenging or painful? What are the activities you dread or frequently end up with problems or issues downstream? If you’re having trouble thinking of something, have a meeting with your direct reports. Better yet, talk to your frontline workers. The odds are good that you’ll be able to develop a list of things that could be simplified. Pick one and take a shot at simplifying it this week.