Complexity at work – 4 steps to crush it and restore Simplicity

Complexity Bureaucracy

Complexity is one of the top sources of demotivation. Despite all improvements in information technologies and communication, we often see employees look unhappy, lacking the motivation and incentives to work efficiently.

Complexity kills collaboration. In a complex, confusing workplace, teams tend to retreat into silos. They just focus on trying to get their specific work done. Complexity is particularly damaging given today’s fast-changing markets where innovation is essential.

Complexity Bureaucracy

First, we will look at what was looked at as a great solution and is still very common nowadays:
theThereaucracy system. Secondly, we will review the hard and soft approaches in management.
Finally, we will review the solution Smart Simplicity proposed by Boston Consulting Group partners Yves Morieux and Peter Tollman in their book “Six Simple Rules: How To Manage Complexity Without Getting Complicated”. 

The rise and fall of the Bureaucracy


According to the sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920), the bureaucracy can efficiently and rationally organise human activities in all spheres. It creates efficiency and neutralises favouritism and complexity. He supported the idea that the systematisation of processes and formed hierarchies are necessary to manage social order. Weber defines four characteristics of modern bureaucracy: 

  • Hierarchy delineated and verified hierarchical authority and division of labour 
  • continuity, consolidated administrative continuity in structures where administrators have a constant salary and career growth 
  • impersonality, avoiding the personal factor. Acting according to established rules.
  • Expertise. The choice for the position should consider the existing merit and adequate education. 
Manager in a classic organization?

Complexity nowadays

Despite more than a century old, numerous new managerial trends and buzz words, the last one
being Agile, this model seems still highly used in the corporate world. It seems there is no way to
scale up any organisation without setting up some bureaucracy because some people need
clarity of role, a chain of command, procedures, departments and stable task scope.

But the moment inevitably comes when any bureaucratic hierarchy becomes much more focused on maintaining its internal structures, systems and power. Strict adherence to prescribed procedures counts more than the results achieved. Finally, they forget the real bureaucracy purpose. The process is here to help the coworkers and not the contrary.

Complexity now- “We can not win a race by committee” Movie Ford vs Ferrari

Traditionally, the fight against bureaucracy comes from the top by adjusting policies and hopping signific improvements. But changes rarely reach operational levels. In their book, Yves Morieux and Peter Tollman describe a way to improve the productivity of companies in today’s complex and rapidly changing business environment. 

Hard vs Soft management

Boston Consulting Group (BCG) specialists compiled data from more than one hundred European and American listed companies to develop the Complexity Index. It turned out that there has been a sharp increase in bureaucratic structures and procedures over the past 20 years. The Complexity Index increased from 50% to 350%.

Firms have created new bureaucratic interface structures, verticals, and coordination units to approve decisions. This complexity has high costs. The managers of 20% of most complex companies spend 40% of their time writing reports. All coordination meetings take 30% to 60% of their business hours. As a result, managers fail to appropriately interact with their teams and other departments.

You lead people, you manage things

The Marine Corps distinction between leadership and management

Employees of such enterprises are 3 times more unsatisfied than others. There is also a drop in their labour productivity. This situation leads to erroneous decisions and wasted efforts. We will see that two traditional and outdated approaches exist to solve this problem. 

Hard management approach (Scientific Work Organisation)

  • Structure, Process, the system created, KPI … directly affect labour productivity 
  • New problems are solved by the new processes and organisation review. For example, by quality – a quality department is created, then a compliance department, etc. 

Soft management approach

  • Feelings, interpersonal relationships … Good performance is due to good relationships.
  • Soft management is in no way the opposite of hard management. It is also based on control.

What are the possible remedies? You may have heard about Lean, TOC (Theory of constraint) or Agile, but did you know The Smart Simplicity?

The solution against complexity – Smart Simplicity

Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.”

Ernst Schumacher

Four Steps to be taken by the leadership to remove complexity

  • Step 1: Look for weaknesses in interdependency and what activities to do to create collaboration. Ask others what else to do if relations were perfect.
  • Step 2: Eliminate everything which limits cooperation. For example, too many resources, excessive authority and powers to reject the cooperation offer, etc.
  • Step 3: use Rules of simplicity to implement changes. See below
  • Step 4: Raise expectations.

Virtually all executives in modern organisations deal more with paperwork and reporting than managing people.

Six rules to remove complexity

1. Deeply understand what your people do

Analyse the content of each person’s work. Identify obstacles that prevent people from working successively. Go beyond the formal job description. Most traditional management methods, instead of helping, add complexity and unnecessary functions and responsibilities for the employee. 

People act rationally, caring for their interests, even to the detriment of collective goods. The essence of smart simplicity is to understand that and then transform the conditions inside the organisation, so their interests align with the company’s interests.

2. Strengthening the integrator 

Integrators. This category of people usually does not have official positions and acts as a connecting link for different groups. Integrators can be viewed positively and negatively as they force people to make difficult choices. How do we identify an integrator in the team? They are a concentration of solid feelings with positive and negative signs. Give your integrators the power, incentives, and credibility to build high-performing teams. 

  • Reduce the number of the hierarchical level. Remove any mini-divisions where managers are far from the production process.
  • Remove managerial positions that do not affect the work context and cannot facilitate people’s collaboration.
  • Minimize rules. Their excess prevents managers from implementing their ideas. 
  • Rely on judgment over metrics. It is challenging correctly measure the contribution of everyone to a common cause. When granting integrators the right to perform their function, rely on their judgment, not artificially generated metrics. 
  • Trust common sense more than any indicator. You can’t measure collaboration with KPI. You need an integrated approach to measuring performance. 

3. Increase in power and responsibility 

The real key to increasing productivity is collaboration solutions along with autonomy. It means more power and not redistribution. The problem with applying the classic approach is that new levels, processes, and systems are added. Instead of solving problems, it deprives people of autonomy, and organisations are deprived of flexibility. 

4. Increase reciprocity

Deny everyone accesses to the resources. The lack of resources stimulates people’ to rely on colleagues and, accordingly, to cooperate.

Cooperation: Think of a household with several inhabitants. If those people own multiple televisions, they do not have to cooperate to decide what to watch. But if to remove all the televisions except one, they will cooperate. Do they want to watch baseball or Shakespeare?”

Yves Morieux

5. Reducing uncertainty in the future

Create feedback loops to expose coworkers to the consequence of their actions. People work better when they understand–and have to deal with–the consequences of their actions.

6. Reward those who accept cooperation 

The idea is not to find guilty employees but to achieve transparency. If people fear failure, they hide the problem from their managers and colleagues. Reward those who disclose shortcomings and punish those who refuse to eliminate them. Do not evaluate the behaviour of employees. You better estimate the results of their work. Evaluation of the cooperation degree should be discussed, not measured. Everyone remains in the meeting room until the staff generally reaches acceptable solutions!

Blame is not for failure, it is for failing to help or ask for help

Jørgen Vig Knudstop – Lego CEO


Smart Simplicity allows companies to manage complexity not by prescribing specific conduct but by creating the conditions within which optimal behaviours occur—even though what is optimal cannot be defined in advance. This approach leads to greater organizational diversity. Because voluntary cooperation brings creative, customized solutions to problems.

Yet despite this diversity, companies following smart rules are highly efficient in terms of the resources they use because problems are solved entirely through cooperation, the skills and the creativity of employees. Any costs generated by diversity are more than offset by being able to ditch all the coordination and collaboration programs favoured by many organisational experts. Employee engagement and motivation rise along with performance as companies remove the complexity that causes frustration and ineffectiveness. David Gousset

PS: Review meetings can be one of the first steps to simplifying with your colleagues. Most of the time criticised for taking so much valuable time … How to create a team meeting.

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