Are you pushing for ‘Simple’ in your business?

Take a minute and think about your average work-day.  How many meetings do you have?  How many discussions (planned or unplanned)? How many different topics do you touch on in a typical day?  If you’re like most business owners or professionals, you’re dealing with a lot of ideas, concepts, and personalities. Unless you’re doing something about it, things can get very complex, very quickly.  The point is, business, life, whatever you’re dealing with, tends to get more complicated over time – and that eventually ends up in a state where nothing worthwhile is getting done.

Unfortunately, that’s the state that 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, layout the mindset and concepts for the leadership framework they teach (and the one that is currently used by the Navy Seals).  One of the key concepts is ‘Simple’ and it’s critical if you want to be a successful leader.  The idea is pretty straightforward – 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).

Luckily, most of us aren’t dealing with combat situations, but it’s easy to see how important this idea is in that arena. In combat, hesitation or confusion is likely to get you, or someone on your team, killed. Which is why it’s critical that everyone knows exactly what’s going on, what the objective is and how they’re going to get there. Things will still go wrong, but it’s much more likely you’ll be able to adjust when everyone starts on the same page and has a clear idea of what you’re trying to achieve (Commander’s Intent).

In business, it’s typically not life and death, but you’re still dealing with high-stakes situations. Confusion, indecisiveness or crossed efforts will all lead to likely failure. Keeping things as simple as possible minimizes those issues and allows the team to quickly adjust as new things are thrown at them.

But ‘Simple’ is well… 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 of the fundamentals and have mastered them so they are naturally drawn to more complicated solutions – and that might be okay if they only deal with other experts.  However, if your team includes 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 with the lowest common denominator (which in a business might be an hourly frontline worker who just started last week…).

Another factor that comes into play is that simplicity comes across as too simple.  The reality is that an elegant, 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


And simple definitely doesn’t mean easy. Ask any baseball player or golfer how easy their sport is. It’s a very simple idea – hit a ball with a stick, but it takes years of practice and lots of talent to be really good at it.  Simple, but not easy.

What about your business?

How does this apply to a typical business environment?  The odds are good that you’ve currently got things you and your team are doing that could be simplified.

An example that I often see (and was an example in the book) would be incentive plans.  I know of several corporate environments where the staff would literally have to break out a calculator and a spreadsheet to figure out what their annual bonus might work out to?  If it’s not immediately clear how they can make more money, most people 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? – a process (informal or formal) that your or your team uses to handle common situations.  If you haven’t taken the time to really think through how to handle something and documented that approach, the odds are you’ve got 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.  Out of all of the things you and your team work on, what are the top 2 or 3 things that stand out as challenging or painful.  The activities that you dread or that frequently end up with problems or issues downstream?  If you’re having trouble thinking of something, have a meeting with your direct reports – or better yet, your frontline workers and ask them.  The odds are pretty good that you’ll be able to develop a list of things that could be simplified. Pick one of those and take a shot at simplifying it this week.

Is your business as streamlined as it could be?  Is this important to you?  When’s the last time you thought about it?  Share your thoughts below – we’d love to hear from you.

Shawn Kinkade   Kansas City Business Coach