Many design and technical professionals are attracted to complexity. Engineers, scientists, architects, and consultants often seek out larger and more complex projects – and eschew the simpler ones. These professionals are invigorated by using their experience, expertise, intelligence, and creativity to attack and solve challenging problems (particularly those that others can’t readily solve). With this paradigm, design and technical professionals envision that the opposite of simple is complex. Complex is good, interesting, and necessary. Simple is simplistic, unchallenging – and boring.
In contrast, experiences in the business of the firm suggest a different model. Managing a professional services firm focuses on managing people – where issues are often less precise, and answers less right or wrong, black or white. Success results from choosing a path and sticking to it, sustained commitment and action, and humility, flexibility, and innovation on the fly. In this context a different paradigm is I think more helpful: the opposite of simple is not complex, but hard. Optimal solutions for the business side (for example in strategy, leadership, marketing, and operations improvement) are often elegantly simple (and even quite familiar), but frustratingly difficult to implement, execute, and achieve.
Last week’s Wednesday edition of USA Today included a story on the US automakers – surging back, but with challenges ahead. A sidebar further described specific progress at Ford – where CEO Alan Mulally has been working to change the company’s culture as part of a large scale organization turnaround. Mulally recounts one particular meeting, where high level managers reported on business unit progress using color-coded charts (green for okay, yellow for smaller issues, red for serious problems). All managers’ charts were all green (across all metrics) – even though the company was pacing toward a $17B loss! Mulally’s point and teaching moment – it’s okay to acknowledge problems and ask for help – that’s what good manager’s do. Afterwards first one, then others, and finally all Ford managers became comfortable with this new candor and collaboration – helping Ford to significantly improve its operational quality and speed.
A good story, and certainly applicable. Honesty, candor, and managerial transparency are indeed key attributes of professional services firm success as well. Still, I’m hung up on another – and perhaps even more important take away point: Ford Motor Company – with annual revenues of $129B – manages its business with simple stop-light (red-yellow-green) charts!
These simple management tools – flash reports, dashboards, balanced scorecards – are not new – I’ve used them in my work now for nearly twenty years. Still, they’re not employed and leveraged well enough in most professional services firms. Instead, the metrics of organization and company success are all too often poorly defined, unclear, or (even) purposely ambiguous. On top of this, a lack of simplicity in management systems leads to additional complexity, confusion, and mistakes – and ultimately considerable cost. [One example: before reengineering, a client used to conduct three separate regional finance meetings each month – and each lasting 1 – 1 ½ days – largely the result of ill defined objectives, lack of information transparency, and unnecessary operational complexity.
Are there opportunities in your firm today for change and improvement – toward a more simple and straightforward system of management – with clear objectives, goals, metrics, and active stewardship? The key is to think simple –and avoid complexity. Instead of the technical paradigm: good and bad, right and wrong, black and white, complexity is good – let me suggest a different picture: baseball.
In baseball (a game of rules, strategy, and discipline), success comes not through complexity, but through simplicity. Baseball is a game of effort – practice, repetition, and experience. Success comes with a swing and a miss, fail and return, try it again, keep working at it – continuous improvement.
And here is the punch line. A career in baseball – one characterized by dedication, hard work, and consistent stick-to-it effort, along with a hit in one out of every three at-bats – leads to Cooperstown, the Hall of Fame.
I’m sure it’s true in your company. Reducing operational complexity, defining and clarifying core objectives and measures of success, and creating a simple and straightforward system for managing and improving the organization – are real opportunities right now. Capturing these opportunities provides a payoff for the firm today, as well as for the challenging future ahead.
Your objective is to act. Start somewhere – but start now. And keep the baseball picture in your mind. Remember that when it comes to managing the business, the opposite of simple is not complex. The opposite of simple is hard.