Why do we over-complicate so much stuff at work?

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Since this post is going to be about the power of simplicity in business, I’ll keep it relatively short. Simplicity, you know? (P.S. I’ve written about this before, i.e. here and here.)

I think it’s probably helpful to level-set at the beginning.

The flawed assumptions we all make

In part because we see a lot of young guys making money off tech, we tend to think this is a very “entrepreneurial” or “innovative” time. It’s not. Companies are more bureaucratic than ever. Why would that be? If the goal of a company is often to cut cost, why would they take on all those salaries in the form of “Strategic Account Manager Level II?”

Very simple. Bureaucracy allows people to make a good salary and never have to make decisions. All they do all week is go from meeting to meeting and fire off low-context emails. Every two weeks, they get a nice chunk of change in the Bank of America account. They essentially did nothing except digitally push papers around and say the same 12 buzzwords in various meetings. Bureaucracy and hierarchy enable this to happen.

And now, the biggest impediment to simplicity in business

For those bureaucratic managers to feel relevant and have their job provide them some self-worth, they need to find things to do. Oftentimes, this involves running other people in circles and/or talking about how busy and important they are.

Usually this happens by choking everything in process. When you do that, any chance of simplicity in business is out the window. And, in fact, let’s turn to GM CEO Mary Barra, talking to Stanford Business School students, about that topic:

Before she became CEO, Barra was part of GM’s senior leadership team and had been working to bring the company, founded in 1908, into the digital age. Her priorities included simplifying the company and eliminating bureaucracy. “If you believe that most people come to work every day and want to do a good job, then what’s getting in their way? Do we have an environment, a collaborative environment, and the tools that are necessary so they can do their best work? Or is it painful to get the most simple task done?” she says.


“Is it painful to get the most simple task done?”

Ask yourself that about where you work.

Out of 10 people that may read this and ask themselves that question, I bet 7 would say “yes.” No way it’s lower than 5.

We’ve all had jobs where to do a simple action, you need to update 12 documents residing in seven different places. Those jobs are probably more normative than jobs that embrace the idea of simplicity in business.

Once I had a job where literally every tweet had to be entered into various databases. The rationale was “accountability” (1), “so the bosses can know what’s going on” (2) and “data” (3).

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Breaking down those three: (1) process for the sake of process; (2) the bosses never looked at it because Twitter wasn’t a direct revenue channel; (3) no one ever analyzed it, and all that was recorded was the tweet — not the data on the tweet. What “data” would one glean from the tweet copy?

Wouldn’t simplicity in business be logical?

If everyone is so busy and business is moving so goddamn fast and there’s so much to do (we love us some workaholics), wouldn’t it make sense to make things simpler? I think that’s the premise of the Essentialist movement.

I’m all for responsibility and accountability, but aren’t there ways to design processes with an eye towards simplicity, instead of making easy tasks painful to complete?

I feel like if we can create all this tech and hold massive conferences about what work will look like in the future, we can probably create systems where business gets done without gagging everyone on process.

The elephant in the room here, of course, is the role of managers. They need to feel relevant. That’s a huge aspect of work, especially for guys. And running people in circles / making them jump through hoops on basic tasks = increases relevance of whoever assigned that work. It’s hard to completely ignore that psychology.

What would you say about simplicity in business? Ever achievable?

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Blogging, largely about work and how to improve it. How I make (some) money: http://thecontextofthings.com/hire-freelance-writer-ted-bauer/

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