Executive Briefing: Embrace Simplicity to Manage Complexity

Grant your workers more autonomy to help your organization better adapt in a complex world.

By Dori Meinert Jul 13, 2015

HR Magazine July/August 2015 The business environment grows more complex every year. Businesses have more stakeholders, more customers, more markets and more regulations. Business leaders are juggling conflicting demands, and changes are occurring at a more rapid pace than ever before.

Since 1955, complexity has increased sixfold in companies in the United States and Europe, according to The Boston Consulting Group’s Complexity Index. While businesses typically committed to four to seven performance imperatives 60 years ago, today they commit to 25 to 40.

Leaders usually respond to this complexity by creating new layers of management, new processes, new rules and new financial incentives. Yet in doing so, they are making their organizations more complicated, more bureaucratic, and less able to adapt and remain competitive.

It’s no wonder that productivity slows and engagement suffers, says Yves Morieux, a senior partner and managing director in the Washington, D.C., office of The Boston Consulting Group, a global management consultancy.

A more effective response is to grant employees more autonomy and to encourage greater cooperation and problem-solving at every level, says Morieux, co-author of Six Simple Rules: How to Manage Complexity without Getting Complicated (Harvard Business Review Press, 2014).

“What matters increasingly is the way of working,” Morieux says.

The six rules described in the book are:

Understand what employees actually do. In most companies, managers know what people are supposed to do—but not what they really do and why they do it. Managers should find out “why they do things that could be potentially disastrous in terms of productivity,” he says. What resources do they have to try to solve their problems? What hinders them from achieving their goals?

Reinforce the “integrators.” Those are the employees who have both the interest and the power to make others cooperate. Often, those with power use it to benefit themselves, not the company. And people in positions like hotel receptionist usually lack formal power but have an interest in getting housekeeping and maintenance workers to address problems quickly so they don’t have to hear customer complaints, Morieux says.

Give more employees more power to get things done. Give people power to make a difference on issues that matter to someone else. Granting power helps channel the intelligence of more people, enabling the organization to be more flexible, more adaptive and more effective.

Increase reciprocity. To get people to cooperate with each other, make them depend on each other to achieve their goals, Morieux advises. One way to do that is by removing resources so they need to solve problems together. Another way is to create overlapping objectives to ensure that people from different teams or units work together to improve overall performance.

Ensure that employees feel the consequences of their actions. Have employees interact more frequently with others whose work is affected by their actions. When exposed to the problems their behaviors could create down the line, employees see the merits of cooperation. Incorporating such feedback into the work process can reduce the need for rigid controls, supervision and metrics. “Intrinsic motivation is almost always the consequence of underlying feedback,” Morieux says.

Don’t punish failure; punish the failure to cooperate. “When a train is delayed, should we blame the root cause of the delay? Or should we blame others who, when they knew there was a delay, didn’t compensate?” Morieux asks. Most performance evaluation systems punish the root cause. But problems happen for many reasons and the only way to solve them is to reduce the payoff for those who don’t contribute to a solution, he advises.


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