Everything Is So Complicated – Isn’t It?

Kathrin Haag

I recently read Six Simple Rules – How to Manage Complexity Without Getting Complicated, a book that addressed one of my biggest pain points. It was published by Yves Morieux and Peter Tollman, two partners from my former employer, The Boston Consulting Group.

I have recently entered the working mum’s world, and I constantly feel like everything has become so complicated. I want to optimize in all areas and try to control, structure, and plan as much as possible to get the best possible outcome, but I realize that this behavior makes things more exhausting and certainly not less complicated (if not worse). Perhaps I should look at things from a different angle, where they not complicated per se, but just complex – and consider whether I may be the one making them complicated.

Morieux (director of the Boston Consulting Group’s Institute for Organization) and Tollman (head of the firm’s North America people & organization practice) introduced the Boston Consulting Group’s Complexity Index. This index shows that in 1955 (the year the Fortune 500 was created) companies in the United States and Europe typically committed to between four and seven performance requirements. Today, that figure is between 25 and 40. Moreover, in 1955 hardly any of the performance requirements were contradictory, whereas now, up to half of them are. Companies need to sell high-quality products at low prices, have supply chains that are fast and reliable, offer a globally consistent service but still take note of local needs, etc. Due to shifting trade barriers and technological advances, customers have so much choice, which makes them harder to please and less willing to accept compromises.

As a consequence, leaders have made organizations more complicated. With so many interests to be served, the obvious solution is to devise structures and procedures, implement rules, and ensure that no issue is left without control. But (and this is the essence of the book) countering complexity with complication in this way makes the problem even bigger. Complicatedness destroys a company’s ability to get anything done. Similarly, it highly frustrates employees who feel they need to spend increasingly more time to reporting on WHAT they do instead of DOING meaningful things and experiencing the impact of their behavior.

So, this all makes sense, and hardly anybody would object – at least in theory. But why is it so difficult to act against this very human, natural impulse of structure and control?

As expected, the authors show a way out of this bureaucracy trap with their six simple rules: “…a third revolution in management – ‘smart simplicity.’” Managing complexity and introducing simplicity enable organizations to improve performance and engagement. This creates a virtuous circle where better performance results in increased opportunities for people; more opportunities generate greater engagement; greater engagement encourages greater ambitions and aspirations; and this leads to even better performance.

Sounds good, so what exactly can we do? Here is what they suggest:

  1. Understand what your people do and why they do what they do.
  1. Reinforce integrators and transform managers into integrators: give units and individuals the power to foster cooperation and help them benefit from it.
  1. Increase the total quantity of power, as coping with complexity requires a higher level of both autonomy and cooperation.
  1. Increase reciprocity; the success of one depends on the success of all. Eliminate internal monopolies, remove resources that fuel dysfunctional self-sufficiency, and create multiple networks of interaction.
  1. Extend “the shadow of the future” (the importance of what happens tomorrow as a result of what we do today) by creating direct feedback loops that make people feel the consequences of their work.
  1. Reward those who cooperate and capture how each individual contributes to the effectiveness of others. “Blame is not for failure; it is for failing to help or ask for help,” said the CEO of the Lego Group.

I am thrilled by the idea of implementing these smart and simple rules in our organization. For me, this boils down to three important things that I want to incorporate into my leadership behavior:

  1. Trust in our people, that they are motivated and able to manage complex situations. We are measuring the trust index of our employees towards managers every year, but what about managers’ trust towards employees? Trust generates trust.
  1. As a consequence, give people as much freedom and power as possible to take situation-specific decisions. Replace control with coaching and support.
  1. Provide an environment where cooperation and transparency are rewarded, where people see their personal (intrinsic and extrinsic) benefit and motivation in doing so.

How I will translate this into my private life is not fully clear to me yet, but it certainly has something to do with taking complexity (and its dynamics) as an opportunity, not a threat. Furthermore, it means less control and more trust that we will make the right decisions and “letting go.”

For more on increasing workplace productivity, effectiveness, and satisfaction, learn How Emotionally Aware Computing Can Bring Happiness to Your Organization.

This blog was originally published on LinkedIn.

Kathrin Haag

About Kathrin Haag

Kathrin Haag is Head of HR for MEE and regional HRBP for HCM. She had previously worked for SAP between 1999 and 2008 in various local, regional, and global positions in HR, Service and Support, and Field Services in Switzerland, and Walldorf. In 2008, Kathrin left SAP to become head of HR at the Boston Consulting Group Switzerland. Last year, she started her own business in the field of HR, training, and coaching, supported us on a consultant base and returned to SAP in the current role.