The recent drought in Europe resulted in water restrictions in France, but golf courses were partially exempt. This didn’t go down well with the locals, especially nurseries and farmers, and as anger gathered momentum, activists came up with an idea.
Targeting golf courses near Toulouse, they filled the holes on the greens with cement. No holes. No golf. Problem solved. Restrictions were instantly reviewed!
During the Second World War, Britain and Germany indiscriminately carpet-bombed each other’s cities. Despite the carnage wrought on historic buildings and innocent civilians, it brought neither country closer to victory. In fact, it had the opposite effect; it stiffened their resolve to keep fighting.
Then the US came up with a better idea. They suggested that German ball-bearing factories should be targeted for bombing. Without ball-bearings, no machines, from bicycles to fighter planes or tanks, can operate, and the destruction of their ball-bearing factories would eventually bring all enemy machinery to a grinding halt. (For other reasons, it didn’t quite turn out that way, but it was a brilliant idea!)
These are two examples of simple solutions to problems. It takes a lot of hard work to make something simple. It’s not only the removal of clutter, it requires deep understanding of the essence of the problem or objective.
We have a tendency, a bias, that favours complication, and we often quickly discount simple solutions that would be faster, cheaper and safer.
Just think about the brilliance of the inventors of the cable tie and Post-it Notes we use in our everyday lives. How would you have responded to anyone who suggested such a possibility to you?
‘Complexity’ vs ‘Complication’
‘Complexity’ is a consequence of growth, particularly in agriculture, with its focus on food safety and traceability. New products, new production technologies, new markets, and the organisation and processes to support these evolve. The more locations, the more people and management are required, and the more complex it all becomes.
Many small decisions are made to develop systems to handle this growing complexity, and each might make sense, but as time passes, complication creeps in. It’s the selected business strategy that drives complexity. Without changing that, you will not be able to reduce it.
‘Complication’ is entirely different. This reflects the way in which the complexity is handled. While managers may have little choice but to face up to the complexity of the business, they are in full control of the way in which they manage that complexity.
You will be familiar with the acronym ‘KISS’, or ‘Keep it simple, stupid’. The more elegant
“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication” is credited to Leonardo da Vinci, but it became a mantra for Steve Jobs of Apple fame. In his biography Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson tells of Job’s excruciating obsessiveness for seeking simplicity.
“Any darn fool can make something complicated, but it takes a genius to make something simple,” he would say, and Jobs was just such a genius.
An obsessive search for simplicity must be one of management’s key focuses in today’s world of galloping complexity. To strip away all non-essentials, and do what’s left in the easiest way possible.
Coping with the complexity of today’s business is about building capacity in yourself, your people, and the organisation to learn speedily, adapt and develop the skill to avoid complication.
How to keep it simple
Here are a few suggestions on how to fight complication:
- Take great care with everyday communication. Misunderstanding between people, given normal communication barriers of perception, gender and emotion, is common
enough. In Africa, with additional barriers of language and culture, it becomes extremely high risk. Remember, nothing is so simple that it can’t be misunderstood.
- Insist on plain language being used in all written communication to avoid ambiguity and misunderstandings.
- Examine every step in production and marketing, and simplify aggressively. Consolidate activities and limit the range of products and packaging.
- Automate wherever you can do so economically.
- Simplify administrative procedures. For example, data should be captured once and once only.
- Demand brevity in all written communication.
Peter Hughes is a business and management consultant.