“Understanding the importance of simplicity is critical to your success.”
-Mike Myatt, Top CEO Coach and President at N2Growth
“Great leaders are almost always great simplifiers.”
-Colin Powell, Retired 4 Star General US Army
The more I read, write, learn, and experience, the more I become convinced that simplicity is critical to success. There are few universal keys to success today. Much of our life is filled with a bit of uncertainty fueled by instability in a number or arenas such as politics, economics, technology, and disruptive innovation. It's difficult to say whether one particular thing will work across the boundaries of nonprofits and for profits, small business and large corporate, or small town and international. Simplicity though - focused clarity - this seems to be one of those things. Let me give you five compelling reasons why.
This World is Too Crazy for Complexity
As I mentioned earlier, we live in crazy and unpredictable times. This probably isn't a shock to any of you reading this. Governments have been overthrown via anarchy organized on Twitter, entire industries have been changed overnight via disruptive innovations from college students, and once robust industries like the US auto manufacturers have become dependent on tax dollars just to survive. Our world is incredibly complex as it is, why should we consider adding more complexity of our own? Simplicity, clarity, and focus matter because we have to at least control what is within our reach. Though we may not have the ability to individually change our economic climate, we can change our own organizational or team culture. We should control what we can and fight for simplicity. There is plenty of complexity that exists in life without us adding to it.
Overcommitment Leads to Ruin
How many of you have ever had the feeling of overcommitment? That feeling that you are just trying to survive and keep your head above water? Some of you reading this may be there right now. How effective are you in this mode? How healthy do you feel in this mode? I would suspect that you are not very effective at all. It is nearly impossible to be effective and do our best work when we are drowning in work and life. For some time now the cry of many organizational leaders has been, "innovate or die". While on some level this is true it's actually not what is leading to the decline of many organizations! In fact many great organizations fail not because of a lack of innovation but because of a undisciplined pursuit of more. In his book, "How the Mighty Fall", author Jim Collins writes, "overreaching much better explains how the once-invincible self-destruct." Simplicity paired with innovation allows us to innovate in what matters and chase what will be beneficial without overreaching, which will lead to self-destruction.
Alignment is a Must
How many of you roll your eyes when you hear "alignment" these days? Be honest (because I sure do). But this is not your grandmothers alignment I'm talking about. Internal organizational alignment is important and supported by simplicity, but I believe it's only important if it inspires employees and customers. Passion is a critical motivating factor, but to engage this passion your must have an organization aligned around a clear, simple, focused direction. No one is passionate about complexity. An organization or team aligned around a clear, simple, focused, idea is a powerful one.
Clarity and Focus Fuel Momentum
Momentum is king. It's incredible what it will do for you in a football game, and it's equally as powerful in other areas of life. Few things provide leaders a better feeling than when things are cooking along, building momentum, turning out success after success. What kills momentum? Complexity - every darn time. Simplicity removes the roadblocks of indecisiveness, uncertainty, burn out, and so many other momentum killers. Psychologists Amos Tversky and Eldar Shafir found an intriguing thing about uncertainty in their work, "Preference, Belief, and Similarity". They found that the presence of uncertainty will negatively alter our decision making process, even if that uncertainty has nothing to do with the decision at hand. Leaders can keep momentum building and turning by being out in front removing barriers. Uncertainty and complexity will have adverse effect on decision making, even if they don't directly apply to the task at hand.
We don't retain much of what we learn. Honestly, walking away with 20% retention is really good. It's why every speaker should start and end with the main point. Most people tune out the middle mess of "details". If we want a message to stick, it needs to be simple. Author's Dan and Chip Heath write, "the more we reduce the amount of information in an idea, the stickier it will become". It's a social world we live in, and it's the simple ideas that get shared, posted, tweeted, blogged, and (most importantly) executed. Complexity is quickly forgotten but simplicity can drive future action long after it is presented because it sticks with us.
An important note in conclusion about simplicity. Simplicity is far from "dumb" or "stripped down". There is an art in simplicity. The idea of focused clarity is not stripping away important information, nor is it suggesting that many things in life are not complex. As I stated earlier in this post, many of life's challenges are very complex. The idea here is that we have to artfully boil things down to what really matters. We need to focus on what needs our attention, and allow others to focus as well. Simplifying can often be the skill of compacting the complex.
Julien Smith, Author, Creative, and Consultant, stated “The chasm between idea and action is bridged by clarity.” That's our ultimate goal as an organization of any kind, isn't it? Are we not trying to create action on an idea? No matter what idea we are advancing, it's useless without action. No matter the type of team or organization you are on, I believe the disciplined art of creating excellent simplicity is critical to success. As business and life coach Ali Davies states:
"Simplicity liberates. Complexity kills. Simplify or die."
For more on this topic see my post: The Implications of Simplicity