In my high school English class, most assignments came with the requirement “must be at least 10 pages”. Five short years later while pursuing my MBA, the final paper in my Organizational Strategy class had a very different requirement – “must not exceed 3 pages”. Imagine an entire semester’s work distilled to 3 pages. Oh, by the way, there was a header on the first page and each page had to include a graphic. Which assignment do you think was harder to complete? Of course, it was the shorter paper.
Unfortunately, many companies operate more like a high school than a graduate level class. They are organizationally lazy.
No doubt business is complex. There are a lot of moving parts, multiple issues to confront, tough competitors, and customers to acquire and retain. The ability to simplify a business without making it too simple is no easy task. For that reason, many companies end up with a culture of complexity that unknowingly contributes to “organizational laziness”.
Every day people are hard at work developing bulky strategic plans, attempting to manage a laundry list of projects, and creating long, tedious presentations that try to capture every eventuality. Everyone is busy, but somehow the organization grinds to a halt. Which brings up an important point: Organizational laziness does NOT equal individual laziness. But let’s face it, it is always easier to churn out too many projects and too many metrics than it is to narrow your focus.
When complexity starts to creep into your product development it even threatens a company’s ability to survive. In the book Complexity Avalanche, TSIA discusses the growing consumption gap caused by the incredible amount of complexity that companies have unleashed on their customers, ultimately undermining feature-based differentiation as a competitive advantage.
Simplicity is the end, not the beginning.
But a culture of complexity doesn’t have to be a inescapable fate. Steve Jobs’ passion for nicely designed, simple products for the mass market is well known:
“That’s been one of my mantras – focus and simplicity. Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”
How do you build simplicity into a culture? A good place to start is your strategic plan. The output of the strategic planning process that I have implemented at a number of companies was a simple 3-page document. That’s right, pages. Not the number of PowerPoint presentations or briefing booklets, but pages. The point was that the finite space forced choices to be made. While some criticized it as being too simple to be effective (usually staff guys who had great difficulty making choices and never had to implement their own plan), “simple” always results in a more effective plan.
Once the expectation was set, the dynamics of the planning process changed immediately. The competition for a project to be accepted as part of the plan was fierce. It required a lot of hard work to clearly connect the initiative to the strategy with a fact-based prediction of how much the project would contribute to the overall goal.
The “Rule of Three”
Another way to think of eliminating organizational laziness is through a simple rule – the “Rule of Three”. From a practical standpoint, it’s extremely difficult to manage more than three innovative tactics at a time. So if you want to maximize the effectiveness of your strategic plan without overtaxing the organization, my suggestion is this: Limit your efforts to three tactics per strategic initiative. Of course, it may not be possible to find three projects that get you all the way to your goal. But they should help you make three gigantic strides in the right direction. Besides, by setting the clear expectation that only three projects will be accepted based on their alignment and predicted contribution to the overall objective, you begin to create a lean, fit organization.
Developing “Organizational Fitness” isn’t about engineering a one-time improvement initiative. It’s about weaving a bold, pragmatic, streamlined system for continuous innovation into your organizational DNA. So when it comes to leading your organization, let’s get out of high school and insist on a culture of focus and simplicity. Don’t be lazy. Put the time in, understand what really drives your business, and get rid of those long, tedious PowerPoint presentations.