‘Tis a Gift to Be Simple

In a previous blog (Why is Business So Complex?), I highlighted the factors that drive business leaders and businesses towards greater and greater complexity and more and more work.

Yes, business is complex. And that complexity cannot be ignored. But, the best leaders sift through that complexity to find the simplicity therein. As Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said:

I would not give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.

In nearly every part of their job, good business leaders need to keep it simple.

Leadership Communication: Leadership communication needs to be simple and clear. In effect, the leader’s job in communicating is to accurately and succinctly:

  1. Say where the company is now
  2. Describe where the company needs to go
  3. Detail what needs to be done to get there

It is pretty simple. But, how many business leaders have communicated that message throughout their organizations effectively. How many political leaders have communicated that message throughout their countries? As General Colin Powell said:

Great leaders are almost always great simplifiers, who can cut through argument, debate and doubt to offer a solution everybody can understand.

Goals and Strategy: Likewise, business strategy needs to be kept simple. The company needs to have one to three strategic goals and communicate them relentlessly so that everyone in the company is aware of the goals. Employees in companies need to have just a few key priorities so that they can keep them front of mind and achieve them. As Jim Collins, the author of Good to Great, has said:

If you have more than three priorities, you don’t have any.

Management: Leading and managing the team needs to be kept simple. Focus attention on the key priorities of the employees reporting to you. And struggle, fight and strive to avoid bringing up additional non-critical issues, asking for additional (barely relevant) work, or undertaking new initiatives or programs on top of all the other work. Simple management prevents the leader from becoming a negative force. As Peter Drucker noticed years ago, all too often:

Most of what we call management today consists of making it difficult for people to get their work done.

Products / Design: The success of Apple should alert all of us to the importance of making your products, services, website, etc. as simple and intuitive as possible. Follow their example of simplicity. Fifty years ago, Antoine de Saint-Exupery (the author of the children’s book, The Little Prince) summed up the goal of good product and other design quite well:

A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.

Operations: Keep the operations as simple as possible. Having toured hundreds of manufacturing and distribution operations, one point always stands out; the best operations [and the best processes] are always the simplest. Everything is in immaculate order; there is a flow; there is minimal traffic and people moving back and forth. By contrast, poorer plants look incredibly complex (and convoluted). Inevitably, the plant managers in these under-performing operations take pride in pointing out how difficult and complex their business is. In your plants, your operations, and all your processes, follow the advice of Albert Einstein to:

Make it as simple as possible, but no simpler.

Sales / Customer Service: What is the buying experience of your customer like? In too many cases, it is tortuous to buy from a company; you have to jump through too many hoops, give too much information, get too many approvals, or wait too long on the phone or in person to buy. There is a reason that Amazon’s One-Click works so well. It makes it easy for the customer to buy from them. All business would do well to focus attention on:

Being easy and simple to do business with.


To achieve success in our business lives and our personal lives, we need to simplify simplify simplify.

In the words of the late Steve Jobs:

That has been one of my mantras – focus and simplicity. Simple can be harder than complex; you have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it is worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.


About David Shedd

David has been a President - CEO - COO of an up to $350M group of manufacturing, distribution, specialty retail and services companies, having led 22 different businesses from turnarounds to start-ups to fast growth companies.
This entry was posted in Business Acumen, Leadership, Perform / Execution, Personal Success and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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