Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Rethinking simplicity as a business virtue

Posted in strategy and planning by Timothy Platt on July 15, 2015

I tend to dig into the details when I work with businesses, and that reflects on how I write about them too. And when you look at all of the seemingly endless flow of decisions, large and small, and tasks that have to be carried out by any business in its day-to-day and longer term planning and execution, there are always a lot of details to manage – and even for smaller businesses with minimal headcounts. Those decision and task details expand out as a business grows and as its headcount does. And this and its consequences comprise a big part of why I have always focused on how the detail pieces fit together, so a business and the people who work there can prioritize and can focus on the essentials more effectively – and on doing the right things and on not doing the extraneous and the resource-wasting. Details happen, and if you do not actively seek to control their growth in complexity they can overwhelmingly happen – or at the least they can overwhelmingly happen if your goal is one of lean competitive efficiency. And this brings me to the topic of this posting.

This posting is not about eliminating the hands-on and management details that arise, and that have to be dealt with in all of their diversity. It is about matching the close-up details perspective that has to be addressed, with a more effective overall high-level perspective that is needed if your business is to stay focused on its core capabilities and on its core needs, if it is to be effective in fulfilling its business plan, and its business mission and goals.

The trick is in developing and maintaining that dual detailed plus big picture perspective – and without getting lost in either side to that.

• Simplicity, and certainly effective simplicity takes real ongoing work and an ongoing commitment to excellence.
• Simplicity, and certainly effective competitive, capable simplicity calls for a willingness to consider the new and to abandon the old as no longer effectively relevant, and as soon as you realize its change in status.
• Simplicity and certainly effective simplicity calls for a willingness to question and to take risks, where that might mean adapting change opportunities or it might mean continuing along an established pathway and in spite of novelty distractions. This is never easy.
• Easy and always pursuing the easy mean never questioning: never cutting back and never challenging the accumulation of clutter that arises from that, and in both what you do and in how you do it and in how everyone in a business who you work with does everything that they do there. And if unquestioned and unexamined, this non-productive accumulates over time, and the less-productive does too and all at the expense of the business as a whole no longer being able to focus on or take care of the essentials.

I like to focus on lean and agile, and I use the word “focus” a great deal and both when working with businesses and when managing ones that I have set up and run, or that I have helped to run as an interim officer. And I use all of these terms and a lot of related ones in my writing too, as for example in this blog. The trick is in making these words a part of your ongoing business practice, and a core part of your understanding as to what good business means – businesses that focuses on their essentials and on developing the resources that would best support achieving them, combined with business practices that would bring that focus of intent into reality.

Ultimately, what does it mean for a business to be simple? It does not mean a lack of details or of moving parts that have to work together, each with its own operational and its own underlying strategic and planning considerations. Simplicity means that all of the pieces that are in place fit together and work together smoothly and efficiently and with little if any wasted effort and with no loose operational ends that people seem to carry through upon – just because they always have and with no current compelling reason as to why.

Simplicity means that everyone involved in a business process or transaction can focus more on their inputs and what they contribute to it, and on the results achieved and on achieving goals: their outputs, and without having to step back and focus unduly on the intermediate steps and on how to traverse some potential minefield of performance. Or to express that perhaps more precisely – simplicity means limiting if not preventing the accumulation of friction in these systems that inefficiencies and disconnects create, and that can come to capture everyone’s attention, sidetracking performance per se as a result.

• Simple processes and systems are easier to learn and follow, and are less prone to break-down from that.
• They tend to be correspondingly less expensive and both when everything is working and even more so when breakdowns do occur, as can happen for any business at least occasionally.
• They are easier to change and update for having fewer points in them that would require coordinated corrections to make any overall change work. And they are easier to monitor and performance-track, making ongoing strategy and planning easier too.
• And they tend to be easier and more supportive for both employees and managers, and for customers and for any other outsiders who have to deal with them and their consequences.

I offer this thought piece as a note on business best practices, and I also offer it as an attempt to clarify my simultaneously writing of lean and agile as overarching goals, while continually delving into the details that would be found within that framework. You can find this and related postings and series at Business Strategy and Operations – 3 and also at Page 1 and Page 2 of that directory.

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