Don’t let complexity cripple your business

Organizations can start to remove complexity by simplifying processes and making them work for instead of against their teams. Here's how.

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Complexity is bad for business. As business leaders, we know this to be true. Yet organizations of all sizes, across all industry sectors are struggling to control layers of complexity that are stifling innovation, hampering customer service, slowing productivity, and ultimately inhibiting growth.

Faced with a complex, confusing workplace, business teams tend to retreat into silos and just focus on trying to get their specific jobs done. Complexity kills collaboration and impacts the ability to share ideas across teams. This is particularly detrimental given today’s fast-changing markets where innovation is essential to generate new product and revenue streams.

According to a recent Harvard Business Review survey of complexity in business, 86% of all respondents reported that their business processes and decision-making had become so complex that it was hindering their ability to grow. And while half of those participating in the survey indicated that their organization had an initiative in place to manage complexity, one in four respondents admit their attempts to tame complexity have failed.

Given today’s ‘new normal’ of ever-changing technology, global teams, mergers and acquisitions - what can a business do to remove and control complexity?

Though some level of business complexity is inevitable in our interconnected, technology-enabled world, companies would be wise to heed the words of American computer scientist Alan Perlis, who noted, “Fools ignore complexity. Pragmatists suffer it. Geniuses remove it.”

First, you need to declare the problem and the mission. Make it a priority to focus on simplifying your business.  It’s hard, but it’s worth the effort. Teams want simplicity.

When it comes to fighting complexity, processes matter. Nearly seven in ten Harvard Business Review respondents ranked the flexibility and agility to change business processes as needed as the most important factor in managing complexity, followed closely by simpler deployment, integration, and use of IT systems.

Innovation is a human-driven team sport we’re taxing by making simple things like requesting a password change, or ordering stationery, appear to need a seventeen-step process with ten decision diamonds. We’ve been adding to the complexity problem in the way we communicate processes across teams – making things appear far more complex than they need to be.

Organizations can start to remove complexity by simplifying processes and making them work for instead of against their teams. Here’s how:

1. Use a process platform as your single point of truth for process information

Create a collaboration point and platform for ‘how we do things here.’ Effectively capturing the critical process know-how of the organization is the key first step toward exposing the level of unnecessary complexity that exists.

2. Make your process knowledge simple for teams to use

Process information needs to be engaging, user-friendly, and useful. If your process guidance isn’t easy to use, change it. Consider the needs of each team when deciding the format to present process flows, drilling down to more detail if and when needed. If it’s easy to understand and easy to use, teams will embrace process knowledge as a change enabler.

3. Assign accountable owners to all business processes

A healthy process improvement culture depends on empowered process owners who step up and take responsibility.  If teams don’t feel they own their processes, their ability and belief that they have a right to change processes in order to reduce complexity will be limited.

4. Develop a culture where process owners have the authority and mandate to simplify their processes

Process owners need to know they have the right to try - and sometimes fail - in their efforts to improve and innovate. This sort of message can only flow from the top, from your chief process owner, through your process champions, to process owners.

There are no short-cuts to eliminating complexity, you can’t just think simple. It’s by ignoring the problem, by failing to be ‘intentional’ about keeping your business simple that things get out of hand.

As the Mark Twain quote goes, “I didn’t have time to write a shorter letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”

Be intentional. Invest in simplifying processes and process communication to empower your teams to drive change, simplify their work, and find better, faster ways of doing things.

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