“Do simple things well,” Sutton says. “It sounds easy, but it’s really hard. Get rid of dysfunctional politics. You can see how that has tormented large American companies, like the auto industry. Let outliers into your organization; welcome diversity. The fact is, Steve Jobs couldn’t get hired in most American companies, much less be the CEO. He couldn’t pass through the interview screens. Stay curious. Cultivate peripheral vision in your organization. Learn how to reframe your own offerings by looking both broadly and deeply across other industries. Recognize what you don’t know and find others who know more than you. Build a team at the top that has real power and talent. And don’t underestimate the power of strong cultural control. Find a way to create the old-fashioned unity of purpose.”
The quote is from an article by Alan M. Webber, former editorial director of the Harvard Business Review, called “How Apple changed Computers and Computing.” He is citing Dr. Bob Sutton of Stanford University.
That little paragraph is fascinating. Sutton begins with simplicity. Do simple things well. And I wholeheartedly agree. There are so many simple things that can make or break your day, your project or your relationship. Those little things include saying “thank you” and meaning it. I listen to people on the phone and I can see people smile at the other end just by hearing their voice and how they say it. There is no difference when you do it face to face – mean it or don’t say it.
Simple things are more than words. Simple things are most processes at work. How easy is it to make a request for annual leave? Do you have to hunt for a form? Found it in the cupboard of the department admin, fill it out, have your boss sign and have it returned from HR because it’s out of date? I had that experience although it’s been a while. These days we have an online system, select the days and click submit. Done. Easy. Even better from the bosses view. He gets a notification, clicks on the link, sees how much leave I actually have and can view my leave request in relation to the other guys in the department. Click on approve – done. I wish all processes were that simple. Lots of politics involved where different departments have data ownership. Then it gets complex and paper rules. In a reasonably large organisation that means it doesn’t get changed easily.
I love the bell curve. 68% are the big mass doing things as they always been done or changing the process because it changed. Outliers are the 2.1% at the fringes. These guys are ahead of the curve and at the other end dragging a change as long as humanly possible. Outliers can make you think and they can make you cry. They show a new way and critically examine what is wrong with the current process. They also critically examine what’s wrong with the new one.
Making good use of the curiosity these guys bring to the mix is a challenge and an opportunity. In my experience they are full of ideas and not afraid to challenge anything.
Make things as simple as possible but not simpler, said Einstein. Some systems are complex. People are complex. Every single one of them. Because I said 68% are behaving in a similar way doesn’t mean these guys are simple. They behave for a particular process or in a defined environment in that way. Football players for example have a strong desire to score a goal individually. As a team they want to win the game. They follow the tactics of their coach. Each has given a task, defend, attack, goal keeping, distributing and so on. They follow the simple rules of football. Although the game plan can very complex and diverse depending on the opposition, the available players or the upcoming schedule.
Complex systems are made up of simple things. Control the ball, pass the ball, shooting, and tackling. And the same happens in a work environment. Specialists know specific tasks well but all know the rules of organisational behaviour: Listen before voicing your opinion, ask to understand, share your information, do your tasks on time, raise awareness of bottlenecks and shortcomings, learn to keep abreast in your field, … Basic and simple things that coming together build a complex system.
Look at the conductor of an orchestra.
And it all starts with doing the simple things right.