Although it doesn't show up explicitly in any personality test, some people seem to be more prone to creating complexity than others. Instead of cutting to the heart of an issue, they tangle it further; rather than narrowing down projects, they allow the scope to keep expanding; and instead of making decisions, they defer until there is more data and better analysis.
These behaviors are characteristics of people that I call "complexifiers." Like Pig-Pen, the Peanuts character who carries around his own cloud of dust, complexifiers seem to leave complexity in their wake, making it more difficult for subordinates, colleagues, customers, and even family members to get things done. Here's a brief (disguised) example:
Due to changing market conditions, price compression, and the slow introduction of new products, a billion-dollar consumer products unit was starting to see erosion in market share and profitability. To turn things around, senior management brought in a new general manager, an industry expert named Phillip who had previously run the consumer products practice for a large consulting firm.
Phillip turned out to be a classic complexifier. At every meeting with his team he asked for additional data and berated his people for not knowing the answers to every detailed question he could think of. And although he seemed to be dissatisfied with some members of his team, he kept telling HR that he wanted more time to evaluate them, so no changes were made. Eventually he reorganized the unit into a functional/geographic matrix that he explained through an intricate series of slides that most of his people didn't fully understand. He also created additional metrics that required people to spend more time on reporting. The net result of all this work was that people in the unit were busier and under more pressure than ever before – but market share and profitability continued to decline.
Obviously Phillip represents an extreme example of a complexifier with his insatiable hunger for additional data and inability to make fast decisions. But all of us fall into this category from time to time. If this kind of pattern seems all too familiar to you, and you want to learn how to think more like a "simplifier," here are four questions that you can ask yourself and/or discuss with your team:
How much data is enough? Complexifiers always want more information, with the hope (or fantasy) that the next bit or byte will answer all questions and hold the key to success. Simplifiers understand that there will never be complete data and that it's necessary to create hypotheses and action plans based on an intuitive sense of how much is enough.
Have we agreed on the key priorities? Complexifiers like to hedge their bets and not commit to a definitive course of action, particularly since some new information might surface that will change the plan. So rather than get locked in to a few things, complexifiers ask their people to keep multiple balls in the air. Simplifiers on the other hand narrow the focus to a few key things and give their people permission to stop doing things that don't make the cut.
Do we have an efficient process for rapid review and course correction? Complexifiers like to spend their time in long meetings, sorting through reports and analyses, and trying to manage lots of disparate and unfocused work streams. Simplifiers have focused reviews of the key priorities and hold people accountable for their commitments and results. They also learn as they go, continually testing their hypotheses about what should be done against the reality of what's working and what is not. This allows them to shift course whenever it seems appropriate or necessary.
Can we explain our plan to others? Complexifiers have a hard time communicating their plans to colleagues and customers, relying on intricate charts and diagrams and convoluted slides rather than simple, straightforward messages. One of the key characteristics of a simplifier is the ability to tell stories that convey the situation, the goals, and the plans – in a way that helps people understand what they need to do and how their work fits with everything else.
Some people are naturals at simplification. But for the rest of us, asking these questions can help keep us honest about whether we are slicing through complexity, or creating it.
Ron Ashkenas' blog post on Harvard Business Review. Join the discussion.