Simplify: How can you take stuff OUT instead of putting stuff IN?

Editor: I like your book except for the ending.

Author: What’s wrong with the ending?

Editor: It should be closer to the beginning

When I wrote my new book, Beyond Burnout, the editing process taught me that taking words out was far more powerful than putting them in. The best sentences were the short ones. When I used metaphor or a picture to explain a complex idea (instead of a long-winded paragraph full of jargon), it cut through far more effectively. 

We fall prey to the “too many words” trap in organisations too. We make things more complicated than they need to be. We overload. We have ten priorities, when three will do. Eight people attend a meeting when four people would make it a more efficient one.  We communicate in long-winded, corporate speak, when a simply-worded sentence would hit the bullseye. We make to-do lists, when a ‘to-don’t’ list may serve us and our team better. 

Complexity in business is rising. It was increasing even before COVID hit. Our environment may be complex, but we don’t need to add to it. Unnecessary complexity is a mounting drag on productivity. It tanks workplace satisfaction. And it creates weeds on the path to achieving your strategy. 

So how can you simplify as a leader? Here are five ways: 

Get rid of the pebbles in people’s shoes. An obvious place to start is to get rid of stupid rules and low-value activities. Ask your team what they see as their pebbles. 

Time-wasters are abundant in most organisations. I used to create a report for our offshore head office that took me at least two hours every month. I never received feedback on it, it never seemed to be used, and I wasn’t sure if anyone was reading it. Being the rule breaker I am, I decided to do an experiment. I stopped doing them one month. Eight months passed. No one said anything; no one followed up. I didn’t get in trouble. Zip. Nada. And I gained two hours of my precious time back. This report was a pebble. 

I’m not suggesting we all stop doing something we were once assigned to do, but perhaps we can start questioning the unnecessary. Remove your own pebbles, and ask your team if you can help them get rid of something that feels painful or annoying to them too. 

Wondering where to start? Look at how many people need to review and sign off expense reports or small purchases. How are documents reviewed before they’re presented? If you can shed a few simple tasks, you’ll create bandwidth to focus on the important tasks that matter. 

Up your prioritising game.

To figure out what’s really important, ask ‘what’s NOT important’? The “kinda nice to do’s” are warning signs here. Rather than prioritising once, build reassessment of priorities into your operating rhythms, especially as new things are added to the priority list. Perhaps, most importantly, keep your priority list shorter than you initially think it should be. Ten priorities makes an oxymoron of the word. 

Be like my teenage son – take the shortest path from here to there. 

Like most teenage boys, Zach has a superpower – taking the quickest, lowest-energy output approach to most things. If there’s an extra step in a process that he can root out, you can bet he’ll find it. Be like Zach. Look at your processes and see what can be ditched or streamlined. Your team will thank you for it. Sidebar: This is one where you need user input. After all, they’re the ones doing the process. Ask for their ideas on how to make the process more streamlined. 

Where are the extraneous loops, redundancies, and opportunities to make your processes as lean as possible?

Communicate clearly. 

Who do you know who is great at communicating clearly? Do more of what they do. Start by communicating your vision of where you’re going and when you want to get there. Metaphor and storytelling can be powerful tools to do this. Then communicate key strategic messages in simple, clear, compelling ways that inspire changes in your team’s behaviour and actions. As authors Chip and Dan Heath describe in Switch, you want to create a destination postcard, or “a vivid picture from the near-term future that shows what could be possible.” Describe exactly what success will look like for your team, so everyone envisions the same goal.  If you’re keen to brush up on this skill, Russell Pickering and his team at The Pickering Group are dab hands at this. 

Impose constraints.

When it comes to creative endeavours, imposing constraints seems counterintuitive. But imposing constraints with intention can actually increase creativity. Think of white things. Now think of white things in your kitchen. Did the more constrained prompt bring up more ideas? 

You can impose constraints in many settings where creative thought is the goal:

  • In ideation – Try to impose a temporary constraint in a brainstorm – i.e. “How can we make this for $100?” Keep the filter on for as long as it’s useful.
  • In prototyping – Constrain the materials you use in prototypes to push towards faster, lower-resolution prototypes. Making an arcade game? Do it with cardboard, post-its and a sharpie. Nintendo took this to the next level when they turned cardboard prototypes into a real product with their Nintendo Labo™ set of DIY kits.
  • With time – Can you create artificial deadlines to force a bias for action? Develop a draft of your point of view by the end of an hour. Brainstorm as many ideas as possible in 15 minutes. 

Simplifying is an underused leadership tool. As Lao Tzu said, “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” So:

  • What can you edit out of a current project or idea to make it better? 
  • What can you streamline?
  • What can you simplify?

2 Comments

  1. Karen Andrews on March 3, 2021 at 9:45 am

    This article really resonates with me thanks Suzi. Love the idea of getting rid of the pebbles – simple concept, big impact. Had to have a giggle at the Zach example – so true though!

  2. George Buchanan on March 3, 2021 at 9:37 am

    Very useful

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Suzi McAlpine

Suzi McAlpine is a Leadership Development Specialist and author of the award-winning leadership blog, The Leader’s Digest. She writes and teaches about accomplished leadership, what magic emerges when it’s present, and how to ignite better leadership in individuals, teams and organisations. Suzi has been a leader and senior executive herself, working alongside CEOs and executive teams in a variety of roles. Her experience has included being a head-hunter, an executive coach, and a practice leader for a division at the world’s largest HR consulting firm. Suzi provides a range of services as a Leadership Development Specialist, including executive coaching, leadership workshops and development programmes for CEOs, leadership teams and organisations throughout New Zealand.

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