Why is simple so difficult? The art of business change

Keeping it simple (KISS) is easier said than done.  How often are change initiatives cursed by out-of-control complexity – too much information, too many lists and registers, too many action-lines, too many people.   Tiers of teams feeding each other, too many meetings.  A one minute sales pitch of beautiful simplicity mutates into a vast, brooding business plan…  On the other hand, I’ve also attended board meetings of ‘change initiatives’ where no progress reports were given against plans, without formal consideration of risks or responsibilities, without any opportunity for real challenge.  Too little control, too much control, top-down, bottom-up, middle-out.  Everyone agrees that keeping it simple is essential, to see where you’re headed and to understand what’s happened.   And everyone also agrees that without the detail, things go wrong.  How to get it right?

There is no rule-book for experience.  Managing change requires the ability to operate at different levels, using different styles, occupying different roles.  It’s not easy – so why can some people do it? Did they get lucky?  Were they born like that? Think about learning to drive, play golf, ride a horse, ride a bike, speak a language.  According to the ‘Four Stages of Competence’ model, people start off as ‘unconscious incompetents’, meaning they don’t know what they don’t know.    Unconscious incompetents are likely to assume things are simple even when they aren’t. They are likely to be over-confident and they might get lucky.  They feel secure in what they do know, until it lets them down.  At that point, they think ‘this is more complicated that I thought.’ A proportion of the 70% of change initiatives that fail have probably involved a fair degree of unconscious incompetence. This is because unconscious incompetents think they are competent…as borne out by recent research.

The next stage, after realisation (or when things start to go wrong), is ‘conscious incompetence’. Now you know something is wrong or likely to go wrong, and are not sure what to do about it.  This might apply when considering how to approach a problem that is unfamiliar, wondering which direction to take.  What to do?  Get someone else in to solve the problem and/or look for security in approaches that worked before?  Get some training, recruit a champion and hopefully, move onwards to the next square – conscious competence.  Simplicity is likely to be seen as dangerous, complexity is reassuring, but in reality, complexity is no safer than simplicity – at least with simplicity, you thought you knew where you were headed.  Conscious competence sees reliance on rule-books but adapting, adjusting or innovating is hard.  Mistakes will be made.

Many change initiatives involve entering new territory. There is limited scope for achieving the intuitive state of ‘unconscious competence’.  But if you can harvest the right experience, in the right amounts, at the right time, and at the right pace, you might enter the zone of ‘reflective competence’ proposed by David Baume.   Reflective competence is where an intuitive process is formalised and made explicit when needed, but continues to be used in an informal, unconscious way at other times.  Reflective competence thinks about the level of detail required, the questions to ask, the issues to keep in focus.  It also requires the ability to listen, assess and make decisions at all levels intuitively.

Let’s see how this fits with managing change. Apparently simple, but difficult decisions have to be made about purpose, goals, action-lines, measures, how to keep the right momentum, being aware of problems and opportunities such as other initiatives, or politics, or finance.  At the same time, complex issues must also be managed about how to reach your destination – the route, the teams, the skills, the collaboration, the risks.  The important thing to understand is that one should not compromise the other.

Inflight thinking refers to this art as ‘balance’, and it lies at the heart of the change process.  Getting the balance right between momentum, journey and surrounding airspace requires the ability to see clearly, simplifying to the essence of the matter, but each of these clear, overarching principles has to be supported by more complex processes.  Inflight teaches us that to see where we are going and how to get there requires the ability to balance simplicity and complexity.

What happens when the balance is wrong?  A good example is provided by the fate that befell a chief executive of Lloyds Bank, who admitted that he had focused too much on too many details.  He subsequently said ‘I’m not going to work any less – just differently, by detaching myself from Lloyds’ day-to-day running and focusing on strategy.”

So is managing complexity something that can be taught and learned, or does it require a superstar?  Do some people get dragged down into detail because of their nature?  Should strategy types get their hands dirty from time to time?

Balance can be learned by anyone, but it first requires a shift in thinking, and abandoning certain fixed ideas about change.   The question is, are you ready to shift your thinking?

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