Convergence Conversation: Simplifying Complexity with Lisa Bodell
Complexity is one of the most frequently used terms in today’s business environments. As advancements in technology allow us to connect and grow networks of people, both within and outside of our organizations, they also are increasing the complexity of our connections and growing our workloads. Lisa Bodell, founder and CEO of FutureThink, believes that this complexity leads to cultural and ethical issues. She asserts that leaders must embrace simplification by rooting out unnecessary complexity in order to position their organization to be successful in the future.
I first met Lisa while working on the Foreword for After Shock. Since then, she has provided strong support as I’ve launched my book, Convergence. Not surprisingly, Lisa is a delightful human-centric leader dedicated to creating better futures for the organizations she supports and for the people in them. In this Convergence Conversation, Lisa shares her passion for simplification and her desire to help businesses become more innovative by focusing on the work that is truly meaningful.
Deb: How do you go into an organization and assess complexity? Is the assessment customized for each organization you support?
Lisa: There is a way to detect complexity. People like metrics and processes to help them manage their organizations. We built a diagnostic that allows people to look at two things: organizational complexity and individual tactical complexity. What’s interesting is that, within organizations, it’s usually a mix of both. This fact allows us to figure out how much of the complexity that people feel is perceived, and how much of it is real. It also gives a good look at how consistent perception is between the leadership and the team. Leadership always thinks it’s less complex than it is because they’re not dealing with the same level of complexity that is felt at other levels throughout the organization. We also can detect and assess where complexity is happening through our diagnostic.
Most complexity is tactical and behavioral. What I mean by this is when I ask people, “what do you spend your time doing during the day?” They don’t say regulations and organizational procedures. They say meetings and emails — 100% of the time. That’s not a company regulation issue. That’s a tactical cultural issue. A lot of this cultural behavior is driven by fear. If we leaders can alleviate the fear and create more trust, which was only exacerbated by COVID and working remotely norms again, it would allow people the confidence to take risks and be more innovative. It would allow them to be brave enough to get rid of something that is no longer useful within the organization. And it would allow them to focus on saying no to things so they could focus on more meaningful work.
Diagnostics help to identify the issues. With that awareness, really smart leaders from around the world build formal and informal tactics to get rid of complexity within their organizations. What it really boils down to is it is killing unnecessary work.
My firm, Future Think, works with clients to figure out time sucks like zombie meetings and cultural norms that have outlived their time. We help kill stupid rules. When we do, it allows people to create space for thinking or innovation, or to just get hours back for the stuff they were hired to do in the first place. Most people are spending time on the wrong things. We help them shift the dynamic.
We also see the ways that technology is slowing us down. The ability to shoot things off via email is actually creating complexity. Technology has helped us in the sense of being able to connect to more people and access more information, but technology didn’t all of a sudden solve our decision-making problems. By giving us the ability to do more and more, technology creates complexity.
Behavioral complexity is caused by risk, fear, power control, and mistrust. These are all interrelated. Most complexity in companies is self-imposed and unnecessary. We often create the beast that we become a slave to. That’s the bad news. The good news is a lot of it is in our sphere of control. If we are purposeful and mindful about getting rid of it and empowering people to value more meaningful work versus being busier. This starts to shift things to better and more meaningful work.
Attacking Complexity at the Source
Deb: What is the relationship between the complexity of the outside operating environment, which we have little control over, and the complexity within organizations?
Lisa: We started our work on complexity with regulated industries. The thought was, if we can do it with them, we can do it with any industry. Today we work with intelligence agencies, pharma, financial services, manufacturing, and more. We find companies that have already simplified in every industry, even the highly regulated ones. So it’s not the regulation. It’s more about a kind of innovation. The more innovative companies have a culture that values simplicity. Their behaviors and values are different from those struggling with complexity. In the same way, we find the people who are successful in simplifying are. comfortable operating in those environments. They identify meaningful work so they can focus on it.
They also empower people within their teams — what we call the sphere of control. Often, when I hear people complain about complexity, they’re either talking about regulation or they’re talking about the organization chart. Either way, you’re not going to change things overnight. You’re not going to change HR and procurement, but in your sphere of control within your team, there are things that can be changed immediately. People will describe time sucks and unnecessary cultural norms that could get hours back in a week for more productive things to do. Most of these things do not require a leader’s approval. For example, if meetings are too long, make them shorter. There is nothing that makes you have long, inefficient meetings. They have just crept into behavioral norms. Getting people to rethink and focus more on meaningful work every day is where it starts. Starting internally makes addressing the complexity of the operating environment so much easier because it helps you focus on paying attention to only what matters in the external environment.
Adding New Layers of Complexity
Deb: We are seeing increased emphasis on ESG, sustainability, corporate social responsibility, or whatever you want to call it. Is this emphasis adding to complexity or might it help with simplicity because businesses will need to be more focused on communities and making impact?
Lisa: It’s so interesting, we had this conversation the other day separately with a large pharma and with a large financial institution. Right now, everyone is focused on diversity and inclusion. I sit on many D&I boards. I applaud the initiatives. But I think the issue around D&I right now is having one less initiative that comes from the top because those initiatives tend to be seen as separate from the rest of the work a company is doing. We need to build efforts like D&I or climate change into everyday decision-making and behaviors. For example, when we do skill-building, we focus on power skills like curiosity. Curiosity is a diversity issue. Everyone can ask a good question, but not everyone feels comfortable doing it. Building diversity measures into skill-building can be effective because it’s less initiative and more embedded into what organizations do and how they work together. If you build ESG focus into skill-building, it becomes part of everyday activities. It gets woven into the DNA of an organization instead of being a separate project. You’re measured on how it moves the needle in terms of business.
One of the most powerful techniques that we teach people is called ‘kill a stupid rule.’ The idea is simple. If you could kill any two rules that would help you be more innovative, productive, efficient, what would they be? Every time we do this with a group, a team, or an organization, people tell you hundreds of ideas. Most of them are not policies, they are cultural norms. These efforts or cultural norms just stay forever unless you get rid of them. The best companies are the ones that weed out those old, useless norms on an ongoing basis.
We must frame the problem of complexity differently. Many leaders look at complexity as a financial drain on the company. And that can be very true. But the real reason you want to address complexity is much more human. Complexity is the enemy of meaningful work. It holds people back from doing what they were hired to do in the first place. It comes down to a cultural and ethical issue grounded around how we use our time.
We need to stop defining company cultures using aesthetic measures like bringing your dog to work, or getting your dry cleaning for free, or organic food in the cafeteria. If that’s all it took, Google would have a hundred percent retention rate. They don’t. We must focus on the work because culture is the work you do every day. If you get the work right, you get the culture right. People don’t even mind having a crappy office if they’re satisfied and fulfilled with the work they do all the time. Understanding this is addressing ESG.
Ask any leader what their team spends their time doing. If they spend most of the time in meetings and doing emails, that’s their culture. If they spend their time on innovative work, that’s their culture. It’s first a cultural issue. It’s also an ethical issue because simplifying complexity is about being more human-focused. You’re giving people space to do more meaningful stuff. Especially through the pandemic, we were convinced of something we knew before — time is a non-renewable resource. You will never get it back. We get so upset when people waste our money, but we don’t get the same level of upset when people waste our time. We must be more intentional about how we spend our time and our employee’s time. Again, this is addressing a very real ESG issue. Take care of your employees by making sure they are doing meaningful work. It’s happening now. People are realizing they wasted a lot of time on so much crap. And now we are facing a hiring issue. People don’t want to go back to the same jobs because they’re not up for that anymore. As the saying goes, ‘tell me what you say yes to, and I’ll tell you who you are.’ If we can have people start saying yes with intention and purpose and having leaders empower people to do so, I think we will really shift our mindset to more meaningful work which will create more successful companies in the future.
I think the good news coming out of COVID is that we realized we can work in very different ways. We can question how we work. There are many more ways that we are able to do work because of technology. The issue is going to be that humans love the status quo. They want to go back to the way things were. We are already seeing people quickly doing this. Some will go along, and some won’t. It’s why there’s going to be such a high turnover in companies this year. We had a real revelation that work can be done in different ways. People can be productive in a flexible environment. People also want more than what they were doing before COVID.
Demographics are destiny. Millennials are in the workforce. Gen Z is just coming in and they’re a much smaller cohort. It means that companies are going to be fighting for less talent. To get the talent you need, you’ll either have to go back to the way you used to work, or shift how you perceive work. Many companies will be experiencing this kind of double hit as people reject going back to the old ways of working as the workforce pool gets smaller.
We also have to change how we train and elevate people, and how we skill and re-skill people for the future. Jobs change rapidly along the way. We hire someone to be an accountant and suddenly they have to be a data scientist. We need to stop training people in terms of subject matter expertise. We need to stop thinking in terms of “I-shaped” people when it’s about “T-shaped” people. It also means to stop thinking of important skills like collaboration, critical problem solving, and curiosity as soft skills. They are power skills that set the managers and leaders of tomorrow apart. Companies that invest in those human skills have a great chance of being successful. You don’t get power skills from machines. Those come from humans and we have to be able to invest in them.
Deb: What is your greatest hope for the future?
Lisa: It is about shifting our feelings about soft stuff to making it about powerful stuff. We have to shift how we think about human investment. I’m obviously biased because it’s the world that I live in. But what’s really frustrating is we put so much into technology and so little into humans. When we do put it into humans, we only do it at the very elite levels. We must trickle down this investment because so much change comes from within the organization from an area. I call the middle out. Middle managers are the ones that get drowned with all the workings of the organization. They have incredible potential. And if you don’t capture it at the right time, they get burned out and they leave. When this happens, you’ve lost all your investment in that person. If we can start to invest more in this cohort and help people reach their potential and some of the behavioral skills that simplify complexity, I believe leaders can more easily transform their organizations.
We must reinvent HR. They must think more about being a strategic player, not only an executor. When you deal with an HR group, you’re usually doing it by cohort. They look between and across the organization to build skills as the cohort progresses. We’re not progressing the same way we used to. Today, I think it’s more about teaching people in teams because culture is the work you do every day. To build skills, we need to take learning out of the vacuum and apply it at work. Everything should be trained at the team level; this gets leaders active in the learning, which changes the way we behave. It builds new behavioral skills. Many organizations don’t want to do things in teams. They want to do it in cohorts, like taking a boondoggle for three days for a learning and development program. There’s room for some of this, but if you shift things towards teams you can work on real challenges.
Lisa reminds us that complexity can be a massive, dangerous burden for an organization. The simplification process begins by identifying ideas that do not serve the business’s purpose(s) and the obsolete knowledge (obsoledge) that exists across the organization. As facts, data, beliefs, and biases lose relevance, they gain the ability to inhibit growth and innovation. When many “best practice” business concepts sweep through companies like wildfire, they can tamp creative thinking.
Identifying obsoledge and irrelevancies and taking action to clear them from the organization are the first steps toward opening up possibilities and laying a foundation for lasting success. This act is critical for a human-centric organization because it determines whether the entity can optimize around people doing meaningful work or if it has become so mired in process, structure and detrimental behaviors that human ideas, and indeed people themselves, barely fit.
Deborah Westphal is a leader in future-focused strategy. In her book Convergence, she leverages more than 30 years of experience helping the world’s most innovative business and government leaders to challenge biases, ignite ideas, and build connections. She delivers this rich insight with an empathetic and thought-provoking writing style to chart a path for readers. Throughout the book, personal stories and historical examples highlight convergences that span the globe, impacting everything from global supply chains to climate change, and reshaping the future of business, technology, and humanity everywhere.
Get your copy of Convergence here.