Complexity: How to streamline your business

Too much complexity and bureaucracy can hamper business agility and stifle innovation. Here, Ivan Seselj, founder and CEO of Promapp, looks at how to simplify operations.

Most people have experience with companies where complexity – in the form of layers of red tape and excessive procedures – make it frustrating to deal with them. Organisations of all sizes and from different sectors can fall victim to the effects of ‘complication overload’, translating into poor customer service, inefficiency, stalled growth or, at worst, business failure.

Business teams that work in such environments often retreat to the safety of siloed activity, concerned only with getting their own tasks done and thinking little about the bigger picture and the goals of the organisation as a whole.

This tick-the-box mentality kills collaboration and has an impact on the ability to share and nurture new ideas across different groups, departments or even countries. This is particularly detrimental given today’s fast-changing markets, where innovation is crucial to create new products and revenue streams.

According to a recent Harvard Business Review survey, 86 per cent of all respondents reported that their business processes and decision-making had become so complex that it was stunting growth. Half of those surveyed felt that they had strategies to manage complexity, but a quarter admitted that these had failed.

Tapping into natural intelligence

While some degree of complexity is inevitable – and indeed required in our interconnected, technology-enabled world – it’s how an organisation performs that’s important. As American computer scientist Alan Perlis once said, “Fools ignore complexity. Pragmatists suffer it. Geniuses remove it.”

So how do you stop complexity spinning out of control? Perhaps businesses can learn from the intelligence of the natural world, where adaptation, change and survival appear to happen instinctively.

Consider how complex nature is, yet there is an effortless beauty and purity in how everything works harmoniously together – from the cells that heal our bodies through to a shoal of angelfish that instinctively changes direction in the face of danger.

The law of least effort

Drawing on the teachings of ancient Eastern philosophy, the law of least effort in Vedic science is based on the fact that nature’s intelligence functions with effortless ease.

In applying this principle to the world of business, employees and teams can be empowered through more responsibility, ownership and collaboration to effectively ‘do less and accomplish more’.

This doesn’t mean a dumbing down of procedures. On the contrary, they can be streamlined, so that any time saved can be used elsewhere in the business in the creation of new ideas and continual improvements that will make a tangible impact on the bottom line.

Think about simple tasks that have mutated to become laborious, soul-destroying activities, like requesting a password change or ordering stationery. What should take just a few minutes has ended up becoming a 17-step process with ten decision diamonds.

Tackling complexity

The accumulation of layers of complexity triggered by ever-changing technology, global teams, mergers and acquisitions or entering new markets is a common problem. Once established, the challenge is to control and remove them.

Analysing and modifying your processes can provide the bedrock for finding the right balance. Here’s how you can begin to introduce and benefit from an effortless business culture.

  1. Engage your staff with a single source of process truth

Create a collaboration point, platform and bible for ‘how we do things here’. Effectively capturing the critical process DNA and know-how of the organisation is the key first step towards revealing any duplication and unnecessary complexity that exists.

  1. Simplify knowledge and tasks for teams

Process information needs to be engaging, user-friendly and useful. If your process guidance isn’t easy to use, rethink it. Consider the needs of each team when deciding the format in which to present process flows, so they can see the basic information they need, with the possibility of drilling down to more detail if and when necessary. If it’s easy to understand and use, teams will instinctively embrace process knowledge as a foundation for new ideas.

  1. Appoint process champions to guide change

As Steve Jobs once said, “Technology is nothing. What’s important is that you have a faith in people…” A healthy process improvement culture depends on empowered process owners who are trusted to step up and take responsibility. If teams don’t feel they own their processes, they may become defensive and assume they have been denied the power to contribute to change.

  1. Create ownership, control and purpose for process owners

Process owners need to know that they have a mandate to try – and sometimes fail – in their efforts to continually improve and innovate. Instil in them the belief that every challenge can be seen as a seed of opportunity. This sort of message should flow all the way down from the top of the organisational chain – from your chief process officer through your process champions right down to your process owners.

There are no magic bullets for achieving simplicity. It takes ongoing collective efforts to establish what will become effortless ways of working. The first step is to accept that change is good. Gradual adaptation and adoption of new or enhanced processes over time can not only improve efficiencies and productivity but also spark debate and innovation.

It is important to stay focused on what you are aiming to achieve. Investing the time now to simplify processes and drive change will simplify how your teams work, enabling them to find better, faster ways of doing things in the future.

Ivan Seselj is founder and CEO of Promapp, a global provider of business process management software.

Alan Dobie

Alan Dobie

Alan Dobie was assistant editor at Vitesse Media Plc before moving on to a content producer role at Reed Business Information. He has over 17 years of experience in the publishing industry and has held...