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The Lost Art of Simplicity

By Patrick Lencioni - October 2013

This is going to be a difficult POV to write, because making a case for the power of simplicity is no easy task. And yet, more than ever, I’m convinced that simplicity is the scarcest commodity among leaders, and probably the most important. Here are some good quotes that attest to this on a theoretical level.

Leonardo da Vinci said, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow once wrote, “In character, in manner, in style, in all things, the supreme excellence is simplicity.” Albert Einstein believed that “most of the fundamental ideas of science are essentially simple, and may, as a rule, be expressed in language comprehensible to everyone.”

And yet, in my consulting to organizations of all kinds, from high tech companies to churches to banks, I find that there is a natural tendency among managing leaders to add unnecessary complexity to situations, problems, descriptions and solutions. As a result, plans do not come to fruition, employees get confused, customers become disappointed and leaders are left discouraged.

So why do leaders do this? Why would they complicate their worlds and create problems for themselves and their organizations?

First, I have to believe that they don’t know that they’re doing it. Based on my experience, executives generally don’t like to make their own lives more difficult. But since that is exactly what they’re doing, there must be a powerful underlying cause. I’m guessing it has to do with pride, and usually the intellectual kind.

Think about it this way. When someone acquires a great deal of knowledge through education, either formally at a university or by reading voraciously about a given subject, it is natural that they’ll want to employ that knowledge. In fact, they’ll probably want to use it even if it’s not required, or for that matter, helpful. Otherwise, they’ll have to admit that all the time, effort and money they put into learning may have been something of a waste.

An example from outside the world of business might be helpful here. Consider a dietician who studies nutrition and exercise physiology for a number of years in school. People hire her to help them lose weight and get fit. Few people in her situation will be satisfied simply telling her clients to eat smaller portions, exercise every day, and avoid one or two particularly harmful foods. While that would be a more understandable, reliable and actionable solution than a complex combination of vitamins, supplements, pilates classes and underwater yoga, the latter seems to be a more common prescription if the magazine covers I see at the grocery store are any indication.

This same thing happens among executives who overcomplicate their work in the areas of management, strategy or marketing. For instance, many CEOs who are faced with a difficult executive on their team will spend great amounts of time, energy and money procuring an executive coach or doing an exhaustive 360 degree feedback program when what they might need to do is just sit down and kindly tell the guy that he’s been acting a little bit like a jackass lately and needs to stop. I’m guessing that a successful gas station manager or restaurant owner would do that, but then again, they’re probably not encumbered by excessive knowledge or an overly sophisticated education.

When it comes to managing priorities and projects within their organizations, many executive teams use the most complicated and detailed systems, and yet they often remain confused about what is going on around them. I’m always amazed how receptive CEOs and their teams are when we introduce them to our simple one-sheet scorecard, the one that uses the green, yellow and red approach to assessing progress. There is nothing sophisticated or complex about it, and I suppose that’s the point and the reason why it is so welcomed.

It probably shouldn’t be a surprise that so many successful entrepreneurs dropped out of college or came from relatively modest educational backgrounds, and for that matter, that relatively few of them have PhDs. A person with a humble background is going to have an easier time being, well, humble, and embracing an idea or approach that isn’t terribly impressive, but simply works.

And shouldn’t the real measure of an idea, system or approach to a problem be whether it actually works or not? For many executives who are enamored with sophistication, that isn’t enough. Often, they seem disappointed by simple but effective solutions to seemingly complex problems. I think one reason for that disappointment is that simple solutions usually require discipline and hard work over time, while the sophisticated ones seem like shiny silver bullets, capable of making a problem go away in one innovative shot. And it can be disconcerting, after years of studying and reading and learning, to come to the realization that success comes down to common sense and discipline.

I certainly understand why many of us are so attracted to innovation and sophistication. After all, that is where most of our media and academic community focus their attention. Simple, workable solutions to problems don’t generally provoke magazine cover stories, journal articles in business schools, or features on the nightly news. But they do make for successful companies, informed employees and loyal customers. I guess that will have to be enough for now.