Estimated reading time: 8 minutes
I’ve recently been reading Dan Ariely’s latest book – The Upside of Irrationality. For those of you who don’t know him, he’s a frequent writer and speaker on the subject of human behavior, with a particular emphasis on why we do things that make no practical sense. In this book, he shares research into how we find meaning in what we do, and the consequences of not having it in our working lives. It’s fascinating stuff, and I could read his work all day.
He makes a key point about the need for us to see the outcomes of our work successfully launched into the world, and that it’s the role of leaders to make sure people can join the dots between what they are doing, with the ultimate outcome of the organisation. In the book, he uses SAP as an example of where complexity is clouding this process – I don’t believe he’s saying SAP is a bad system; it’s just one of many, many tools that we now use for our daily lives… probably one too many.
How bad is the problem he’s describing? Well, for example, in 2008 I was working with a police force that had just audited its systems – they had upwards of 350 different ones. That was four years ago – I dread to think how many they have now. Officers at the time were frustrated and disheartened with the situation, feeling that it took them away from the core of the job: to police.
This situation is echoed in the pharmaceutical industry, one of the most heavily regulated groups you will ever find. With multi-billion dollar fines levied for illegal activity, the companies involved have layer upon layer of systems to prevent any, tiny, slippage of the ‘code’. This compliance is aimed to benefit the patient, but it has the hugely negative effect of creating a group of dispirited people who genuinely want to make people’s lives better, but feel the myriad of steps in the process simply don’t allow it. I’ve been part of trying to make the many systems more understandable, which is a Sisyphean task I would not wish on anyone.
Thinking this over, one phrase came to mind, written by the equally fascinating author John Maeda, who, when talking about simplicity, uses this powerful equation “How simple can you make it / How complex does it have to be?” I love this statement, and I turned to it recently when working on an online profiling tool, which I was happily heaping with features that I thought would be wonderful. The final product would have needed days of patient explanation before anyone understood it, and a manual the size of a phone book. Applying John’s rule, I chopped out most of the things I’d added, and it worked just fine.
But with my system, I had total control. With the police and pharmaceutical industry control is far from perfect, and the ‘clear lake’ slowly silts up as many contributors independently bring in their own needs. Organizations over a certain size lose clarity around complexity – no one has the reach or remit to ask the question ‘are we too complex?’ when it comes to systems and process. Many companies simplify their products, operations and footprint, but few ever truly simplify how they do business. As one police officer put it to me, “we are good at adding, but not taking away process.” Systems seem to disappear only when technology takes a step forward.
There’s no doubt that the proliferation of systems is damaging our ability to find meaning in what we do, research, common sense and performance figures all bear witness to this fact. I’m not suggesting that we stack them up and burn them – we’re past that point. What I do feel is needed is local ownership of this challenge. It’s the job of the manager to ensure that people working in complex environments can see how their contribution adds to the organization’s ability to deliver services, goods or outcomes. No one wants a meaningless task, but the danger today is that the processes we’ve built up around the daily job make it difficult to see past the task of administration.
Leaders and managers need to become practiced at holding conversations about the organization’s aims, what’s coming off the assembly line, and who they are helping. They need to recognize that people are blinkered by the systems they have to use, and need encouragement, support and time to step out of this and look at the wider picture.
None of this is difficult, it’s about time and effort on the part of the people that really need their teams to perform well.
And, if you have the capability, maybe also extinguish the odd system here and there – start a quiet revolution around simplifying working life. One of John’s governing laws is “Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious, and adding the meaningful.” So, if it’s a law, you’ve got to do it.
Chris Preston (@Trimprop) is a Psychology graduate and specializes in internal communication and team development. He currently is Director at The Culture Builders.