Making the Complex Simple – The Vital ingredient For Better Focus and Stronger Leadership


making the complex simple

Complexity is inherent in all of our systems, internally and externally.  Think about the complexity of our psychology and physiology. Then externally we have automobiles, electronics, jet engines, supply chains, global distribution networks and so much more. But then we all love easy-to-use systems and would enjoy having them in business as well. But then as long as businesses grow, expand, adapt, respond to changes, complexity would always be a problem. 

Consider the words of Steve Jobs:

“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.”

Typically, if we create an efficient system for these complicated products and ensure that the people handling them follow prescribed routines, outcomes become predictable. 

But the foundation of every organization is not machines but human beings and they don’t always like to follow prescribed routines or they may lack training, make mistakes, have no skill, or don’t understand what needs to be done. 

Additionally, people in the workplace interact emotionally and rationally and may influence each other’s behaviors positively or otherwise. So when human beings are involved, the outcomes tend to be complex and less predictable. 

This is why we often try to regulate and control the human tendency to create surprise, variability, and complexity by using tools such as:

  • Six Sigma and Lean to continuously squeeze behavior into defined boundaries
  • Organizational rules, procedures, structures, and stands to regulate people’s behavior to a large extent 
  • Audits, controls, performance measures, and rewards to create incentives that drive people to behave in defined ways 

But these tools are never enough, especially when we again look at the reasons for complexity in the first place. 

People will always be people; emotional beings, are inherently complex. And people don’t always follow rules. People also have good days and bad days. They get angry or overly excited. They have new ideas and take the initiative. They resist change and uncertainty.

Additionally, the corporate work environment is changing faster than ever before, so your people must also adapt to change.

Studies show that one of the biggest trends in leadership and management is the need to flatten organizational structures. Hence the zeal to make the complex simple or in other words, transform complicated tedious processes and structures into a simple, delightful and easy-to-follow steps has become a true defining character of a modern-day leader. But, how do you make the complex simple for those you lead? How do you develop it? 

 Ever-constant change and the irrationality of human nature fuels complexity. But we accept that as an excuse to avoid making the complex simple Click To Tweet

Our well-meaning actions often unintentionally multiply complexity

Often when we try to push towards predictability and conformity sometimes backfires and creates even more complexity and unpredictability. 

Let’s look at an illustrative example provided by Ron Ashkenas at Duke Corporation Education:

Let’s say a CEO of a global consumer products company becomes concerned about variations in sales performance across different geographies, distribution channels, and product categories. In his bid to reduce variation and make outcomes more predictable, he started a monthly operating review for his senior management team. This review requires hundreds of finance people in all divisions to pull together performance data, and analyze it in every way possible. For some time, the process seemed like a breath of fresh air.  But it soon became an industry of its own and required many staff members devoted to it full-time.

This CEO wasn’t a bad manager. His system did seem to work and the company thrived under his watch. But when he retired, his successor approached things differently by doing away with the process and just reviewing performance exceptions. As a result, hundreds of financial analysts and senior executives could focus on more productive work. 

The difference between the two CEOs is why the first created a system that seemed to thrive. His approach increased costs and made it more challenging for people to get things done quickly and efficientlyThe bottom line? Many wasteful and unnecessarily complex activities in organizations began as well-meaning interventions to control unpredictability and variability. 


A little complexity might still be important 

Not all complexity is bad. It’s important to know when it’s needed and when it’s not.  An interview with over 2,000 business leaders from Fortune Global 200 companies by University of Warwick Business School professor Simon Collinson and Simplicity Partnership in the UK found that a certain amount of complexity is both inevitable and great for performance. This type of complexity enables organizations to respond to changes in the environment, competitive threats, and customer requests. In other words, this type of complexity is adaptive and important to allow the organization to navigate human and external ups and downs. 

But then, the same study equally found that a good number of organizations still contained some amount of complexity that drained value out of the company. In the end, Collision concluded that why good complexity increased performance, bad complexity destroyed value, increased costs, and reduced profitability. 

good versus bad complexity

Source: Ron Ashkenas (2013)

So, what, then, is the solution? How do we allow a fair amount of good complexity to ensure a balance between uniqueness and standardization, innovation and control, freedom and constraints? 


The need to make the complex simple by simplifying concepts, rules, and processes 

According to Adam Bryant, in his New York Times Bestselling author of ‘The Corner Office’ following an interview with 525 CEOs, successful leaders share one thing in common – a simple mindset –  the ability to synthesize the simple from the complex and create organizational priorities. 

This was previously observed by Ron Ashekenas in 2013,  following a survey of 1,400 managers that discovered that although complexity arose from poor processes, managers’ own behaviors, changing structures, and too many products/services, managerial behavior stood out as the most dominant factor. 

Hence it is your responsibility as a manager and leader to help eliminate complexity to drive successful outcomes by approaching issues from a standpoint of making things simpler and straightforward.  

Implementing the simplicity mindset

Still, simplification isn’t an inborn skill (at least for the majority of us). We learn to develop this skill over time, through diverse practices and experiments. We cannot overlook its importance to help break through the vicious cycle of responding to complexity by creating more complexity. 

One superb solution to help foster the simplicity mindset is by following the 80/20 principle, also called the Pareto principle.

As first intoned by Vilfredo Pareto:

“80% of work results in 20% of the outcome while 20% of work results in 80% of the outcome”.

So the question you should ask is – what work can you do that results in bigger and better outcomes? 

Start by assessing yourself from within? Look at your to-do list and organize it by prioritization. The Eisenhower 4-quadrant fueled by the 80 20 principle is a great way to know the tasks you should handle yourself, what’s better delegated, what should be automated, and activities to completely eliminate. 

eisenhower matrix for making the complex simple

Source: Weekdone (2022)

That way, you can discover where you tend to create complexity and by extension focus on your core priorities. This in turn makes it easier to eliminate complexity at a larger scale, that is, at the organizational level.  Let’s talk about the different ways to apply the 80 20 thinking to making the complex simple to redefine your leadership approach. 


1. Prioritization what matters most

Spend 80% of your time on 20% of your work that is most important 

Avoid taking on too much. If 80% of your results come from 20% of your efforts, then you need to identify that 20% and focus there.  In contrast, when you take on too much, it becomes harder to actually finish any task. 

At the same time, your partners and subordinates will find it challenging to determine what is really important, and understand their roles and responsibilities. This in turn dampens their productivity. 

Prioritization is highly important. That way you are focused on what really matters and can ensure that your activities contribute directly to accomplishing those priorities. 


2. Learn to say ‘No’ 

Avoid spending 80% of your time on the bottom performing 20% of activities 

Distractions are part of our daily existence. Sometimes, it’s glaringly obvious to identify them. Other times, it’s difficult, especially when they are disguised as opportunities

This is where the 80 20 rule comes to play. When you approach everything from a laser focus on the most critical priorities, you get better at determining all types of distractions. You will also no longer have a knee-jerk reaction to a new activity/task/meeting/goal. You can avoid causing complexity through unclear assignments, over-analysis, unnecessary emails, and lots more. 

Even when the orders seem to come from ‘high up’, you can always analyze the value or trade-off that comes from taking on that new tasks. So you can filter genuine opportunities from empty noise. 

3. Be willing to make mistakes 

Gather 80% of the required information and make your decisions in 20% of the allotted time 

Perfection is a huge mistake and often a consequence of complexity. When focused on trying to get all the questions answered, all dots connected, all data collected and everything ready to go, it becomes easier to create complexities. Plus, there will always be new information or new development to consider. Hence, focusing on trying to achieve a perfect start means it would take a long time to get things done, which might frustrate your people, and make them confused about what is needed. 

Using the Pareto rule as a guide, your focus should be on gathering 80% of the required information and then making your decisions in 20% of your allotted decision-making time and moving on. There’s no need to waste your time trying to gather every piece of data known to exist.  Define good enough; decide ahead of time what 80% looks like.

This equally means you are accepting imperfections and treating projects as start-up ventures or rapid-cycle experiments. In the end, you become focused on doing just enough to begin, get feedback, learn, modify and improve. That way, you can also allow for the continuously changing environment and accept that progress is not always a straight line. 


4. Communicate effectively

Spend 80% of your time listening to your team and 20% talking to them


We unintentionally create complexity by trying to communicate every idea and information in great detail to ensure everyone understands everything. This results in lengthy content that confuses everyone and is responsible for the reason why internal communication content get ignored by employeesYet, 60% of companies currently lack a better, long-term sustainable strategy for internal communications.

Your primary responsibility as a leader is to guide your team to success. But this does not translate into ‘telling your team what to do’. 

Consider the intriguing results of a study by Laura Landro, managing editor for Wall Street Journal and author of paper’s Informed Patient column:

  • 18-45 percent of patients can’t recall the major risks of their treatment.
  • 44 percent of patients don’t know the exact nature of their operation.
  • 60-68 percent of patients don’t read or understand the information in a consent form.
  • 80 percent of what doctors tell patients can’t be recalled as soon as the patient leaves the office.
  • 50 percent of what the patient does “recall” is inaccurate.

Although these statistics specifically applies to customer relationships (patient-doctor relationship), they can be easily applied internally in any organization. 

Hence, it means that when we strive to answer every possible question in advance, too many details get muddled and confusing. The wasted time and effort also means less time will be spent actually listening to your team and providing opportunities to harness their creative abilities. 

The solution? ruthlessly cut down all unnecessary technical and emotional conversation. Focus on conveying the most important information and nothing more. This would improve understanding and recall. It would also make it easier for people to see you as a leader that isn’t afraid to be wrong about some things. 

In the end, your communication with your associates, colleagues, and teammates become genuine, interactive, and effective. 


5. Delegate everything that someone else can do 

80% of your ideas should come from your team while 20% comes from you 

delegation for communication leadership

Getting rid of complexity doesn’t mean getting rid of the room for innovation, especially from your team. 

As a manager, it’s easy to get caught up in the need to be hands-on. This usually stems from an innate belief that no one can do the job better than we can. Instead of delegating work, or reaching out for input and help, we become bottlenecks, making others wait while they try to get everything right. This is worsened by our ability to take on too much and not prioritize. In no time, we become frazzled, over-worked, and overwhelmed. 

When we delegate, it becomes easier to focus on things that require our level of experience, approval, confidentiality, and authority. In the same vein, delegating provides room to empower, enable, coach, and guide your teams, employees, colleagues, and associates correctly. This also ensures that they will handle the tasks we delegated in a much better way, and develop their critical thinking and judgment. Altogether, further increasing your efficiency and effectiveness. 

So you must attain that level of self-confidence where you can provide space for others to shine. That way, you don’t only gain clarity of purpose, you provide room for others to do so. 

Read this: Learn how to delegate effectively

See the summary video here 

Concluding thoughts

Finally, the words of renowned business magnate Warren Buffet brings to mind the vitality of simplicity 

“You only have to do a very few things right in your life so long as you don’t do too many things wrong.”

Mixed messages confuse people. Disorganized documents discourage reading. Irrelevant details bury key ideas. Too many ideas make it difficult to focus. So even as it’s easy to unintentionally respond to complexity by creating more complexity, we must be intentional in making things simpler and more straightforward.

Always remember that complexity means decay. And internal complexity can lead to huge hidden costs that depress returns more than anything else. 

Let the 80 20 rule guide you to make the appropriate changes towards becoming a better leader. No matter how complex it seems, there’s a simpler way that leads to clarity and clarity leads to focus.