Sage Advice US

Lisa Bodell: If you want to stay nimble, think simple

The promise of technology to help us work “better, faster, smarter” is pervasive in today’s work landscape. But in some cases, the multitude of devices and tools we rely on at work may actually get in the way of productivity—and make innovation harder to accomplish. With nearly every industry at risk of disruption, company leaders—especially those at the enterprise level—need to pay close attention to their ability to not only embrace change, but also predict it.

For Lisa Bodell, the CEO and founder of global innovation consultancy future think, this means businesses need to simplify. “I believe that ongoing innovation is impossible at companies that are suffering from complexity,” she says. “Simplification is what creates the space for change and innovation to happen.”

In her book, “Why Simple Wins,” she asks leaders to imagine what they could do with the hours they waste writing emails every day, for example. With the average worker spending 28 percent of their workweek managing email, that’s no small gain of productivity. We talked with Bodell about her methodologies, and how large organizations can use her simplification formula to stay agile and innovative no matter their size.

Why is everything so complicated at organizations these days?

Lisa Bodell: Complexity is usually created unintentionally. We’re trying to solve a problem, to create something new, expand to a new market. But it’s easier to add on to an existing way of doing business than starting over fresh. The result is one more report, feature, metric, process or IT system… and we start to drown in complexity.

Human behaviors like risk, fear, power and control are at the root of many workplace complexities. People have anxiety around decision-making or meeting their goals, so they request more reports or another meeting in the name of ‘gathering more information.’ Around the world, employees are drowning in low-value meetings and emails that distract them from doing work that actually matters.

How do you define “simplification?”

Lisa Bodell: There’s a big difference between organizing and simplifying. Just because a process is organized doesn’t mean it’s simple. In fact, many complicated things are quite organized, but that doesn’t make them any more valuable (or less annoying). My definition of simplification involves the following four criteria:

If you’ve addressed all four of these areas (M.U.R.A.), not merely one or two, you’ve simplified your problem, product or process. And take note of the phrase “‘as possible.’ Sure, it’s impressive if you reduce a 100-page contract down to a single page—General Electric’s legal team did this—but not if you now have to spend hours explaining all the things you left out. As GE discovered, a 10-page contract is a happy medium (and tremendous improvement).

What immediate steps can high-level execs take to simplify their company’s processes?

Lisa Bodell: Embedding simplification into your organization won’t happen just by making changes to processes or rules—it’s the result of behavior change. To achieve a collective shift in behavior, start by creating a Simplification Code of Conduct.

Think about which behaviors cause unnecessary work and which should be avoided. Also, which behaviors make it easier to get things done? Then create five to 10 We will do X… statements, such as We will say NO to unproductive meetings, We will eliminate redundant work and We will not create false urgency. Every employee should be given a copy to sign and date. This Code of Conduct empowers people to simplify and focus on valuable work.

You need to practice simplification on the front end—eliminating useless work for yourself and empowering employees to do the same—in order to make space for meaningful work like innovation.

What large organizations exemplify simplification in action?

Lisa Bodell: General Motors consolidated and simplified its brand lineup, dropping its Pontiac, Saturn and Hummer divisions. The elimination brought real benefits, helping the company save as many as 1.2 million jobs.

Accenture eliminated performance reviews in 2015. Instead of relegating feedback to a once-a-year exercise, managers now provide employees with feedback on assignments as needed throughout the year. By providing reviews in real-time—instead of trying to recall mistakes or successes from 10 months ago—these check-ins enable managers to identify and resolve performance issues in a timely manner. And by removing the anxiety and formality associated with annual reviews, the feedback itself can become less threatening and more supportive to employees.

Outside of “innovation,” what other benefits does simplification provide?

Lisa Bodell: A recent Siegel+Gale study revealed that employees in simplified work environments are 30 percent more likely to stay at their jobs. Why? Because their time is spent on high-value work instead of endless meetings, reports and emails. From lower employee turnover and better morale to less busy work and red tape, simplification offers opportunities to achieve a competitive advantage in every corner of your business.