The IIL Blog

LinkedIn Newsletter | Join our Email List
Lisa Bodell on Simplification and Innovation

Lisa Bodell on Simplification and Innovation

Lisa Bodell is the CEO of futurethink and the bestselling author of Why Simple Wins. As closing keynote speaker at IIL’s Leadership & Innovation 2019 Online Conference, she delivered a powerful message on how complexity is holding most of us back, and what we can do to get back to the work that really matters.

We received so many great questions during the 15-minute Q&A that we didn’t have time to get to them all. Thank you to Lisa for taking the time to answer each and every question. This blog post is a compilation of some of our favorites.

Should it always be so simple? What if the situation is really complex?

It should be as simple AS POSSIBLE. We use an acronym called M-U-R-A:

Minimal – Making something as minimal as possible is the one part of the definition everyone always knows. Simplicity makes you initially think of all the things you need to eliminate or streamline, but what you might not realize is why that’s so important. Of course, simplicity is a subtractive process. You can get more value from your company or employees by being more focused, more nimble. If we can get in the mindset that less equals value, that’s the very first step. But this is where most people stop; there is more to simplicity than just minimizing.

Understandable – Another element of simplification is to ensure something is as understandable as possible. This is about clarity — no acronyms, no jargon, no big words to sound important. Being ‘understandable’ means getting to the heart of what you mean quickly.

Repeatable – Next: simplicity involves being as repeatable as possible. This is about effectiveness through consistency — avoiding one-off efforts or customizing everything you do. We want to avoid reinventing the wheel each time we do something –this helps us save time, share learning, and ensure we’re repeating best practices. Think of it this way: it’s important that every time a pilot gets into a cockpit, they understand how to fly the plane because the experience is repeatable from plane to plane. And every time a brain surgeon operates, he knows the repeatable ‘best practices’ to use to ensure patient safety.

Accessible – Finally, simplicity is about making things as accessible AS POSSIBLE. This involves being more transparent and open to a wider audience to accomplish more things in an easier way – like Geico and Progressive Insurance did with their pricing models. Their customers are excited to work with them because they believe they are honest by sharing more of how their business works. Or opening up your code like Google does so others can help them create new offerings, or like IBM does with their Idea Jams – collaborating between employees to encourage the sharing of problems and ideas and building on each other’s knowledge to solve them faster, together.

These are the keys to simplicity: making something as MINIMAL, UNDERSTANDABLE, REPEATABLE, and ACCESSIBLE as possible. Notice that I tack the phrase “as possible” onto each element of the definition. I’m not arguing that everything needs to be a single line. That would be impossible, and not at all desirable, either. Albert Einstein famously argued: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”

Do you have an example where this didn’t work?

You mean where simplifying didn’t work? It *is* possible to oversimplify. Let me give you a couple of examples of what I mean: A group within GE set an ambitious goal of cutting down its contracts. They cut a 100-page contract down to 1 page which was fantastic. But they found they were now taking a lot of time explaining all the things they left out. They decided a 10-page contact – which was still a tremendous improvement – was better.

How do you balance simplifying complexity with assuring processes remain in control and the business does not drop into chaos? 

Simplify one area or thing at a time. Chaos will happen if everyone starts trying to simplify everything without knowing why. So define WHY you want to simplify (in service of what? More time with customers? Save money?), and then focus on one simplification area at a time – reports, meetings, etc.

How do you connect simplicity to the bottom line for a business, budgets? 

Simplification has tremendous impact on efficiency, and the bottom line. Per the recent Siegel+Gale simplification report: Customers are willing to pay a 6%+ price premium or MORE for companies that offer a simpler way to deal with them, they are 70% more likely to recommend you to others, and companies that were viewed as ‘simplified’ outperformed others in their category by 214%! Culture and Ethical benefits: 30% retention of your employees – because they are doing work that MATTERS. Those are the benefits, but you may also be asking how you MEASURE simplification to show its impact.

A few metrics:

Vision/Communication Metric: Decrease in time spent communicating on irrelevant social media channels
Structure Metrics – Increase in staff decision-making due to simplified org. structure
HR Metrics – Decrease in number of approval layers for hiring qualified candidates
Strategy/Planning Metrics – Decrease in number of approval committees
Operational Metric – Decrease in number of required sign-offs/signatures for approval
Product/Service Metric – Number of steps or layers removed from our product-development process
Meetings Metrics – Number of meetings eliminated; increase in time meeting with customers
Email/Calls/Voicemail Metrics – Decrease in volume of internal emails
Reports Metrics – Number of reports killed
Presentation Metrics – Amount of time saved by eliminating PPTs from internal meetings
Value of Staff Time Metrics – Number of activities eliminated to make room for new ones

Project Management is one of the most complex and procedure-oriented activities. What do you recommend for Project Managers to simplify? 

We practice EOS – eliminate, outsource, or simplify. First ask – is it necessary? If not, eliminate. If yes – can you outsource it or give it to another group/person to do? If not, can you simplify it? Reduce the steps, reduce the frequency, reduce the time, reduce the people or resources. Doing this with policies and procedures gets incredible results.

In an aging workforce environment, how do you change the culture to move it towards ‘simplification’? Thinking of situations where a lot of procedures are based on overcomplexity ‘to cover all the bases’ and ‘because we’ve always done it that way’.

Kill A Stupid Rule is a great way to question assumptions around ‘how work gets done’. It’s not that all rules are bad, it’s that many have outlined their time. ALL AGES enjoy kill a stupid rule because it moves a culture towards eliminating unnecessary things and opens a dialog to taking a new approach.

If we do the work that really matters to us personally, isn’t it likely that we will ignore or shortchange the work that must be done for the benefit of the company?

It’s not about the work that just matters to YOU, it’s the work that matters for the company and its strategic goals. Some work has to be done, but the issue is we spend far too much time on unnecessary work that isn’t getting us towards our collective goals. It’s the higher purpose work we want to get to, and if there are some necessary things we have to do in service of that, that’s fine. Your goal is to eliminate the stuff that doesn’t matter to anyone (you or the org).

Are there any good tools?

Yes! In my book (Why Simple Wins) and we sell a toolkit on Amazon with 13 tools to get started RIGHT NOW.

How do you ID the best chief simplifier?

For the past 10 years, I’ve helped leaders embrace simplification. The ones who are successful share these 6 traits:

Courage: When Dave Lewis became CEO at European grocery store Tesco in 2014, the company was struggling. Lewis recognized that shopping at Tesco had become a chore. Customers shopping for a single product—like ketchup, for example—were faced with dozens of brands, flavors, and types. Lewis hired a team and mandated them to cut the variety of products by 30 percent, from 90,000 items to 65,000. Lewis anticipated blowback from customers and from suppliers, but Lewis stayed true to his mission. A year later, the company’s first Christmas season beat financial expectations.

Minimalist mindset: To drive simplicity, leaders must understand the value of paring things back. They need to envision how a simpler company will be more efficient, productive, and profitable.  It’s easy to demand more, more, more, but what could it mean for your business if you sacrificed a third of your product offerings? We rarely see the harm in adding new functionality to a website, a new option to a service plan, or a new series of internal meetings. But those sorts of additions do have a cost, like overwhelming customers — even if it’s not readily apparent on a balance sheet.

Results orientation: Smart leaders know that successful simplification isn’t just about making do with less or making people do more with less. It’s about enabling employees to do more of the work they’re excited to complete.

Focus: Leaders with a simplicity mindset refuse to get bogged down by distractions. While simplicity benefits the company as a whole, it often challenges certain individuals and groups whose authority is rooted in inefficient and overly complex rules, processes, and systems.

Personal engagement: If hoping to instill an ethos of simplification, you need to exemplify, empower, and reinforce the behaviors associated with simplification. You eliminate redundancies, you kill stupid rules, you say ‘NO’ to meetings that you don’t need to attend. If you’re not prepared to simplify your own work environment, don’t direct those who work for you to strip things down.

Decisiveness: Leaders who are driving simplification lay aside the need to seek consensus. Complicated organizations tend to be overloaded with people who claim they can’t get things done because they need more time or analysis, or that some other department hasn’t signed off or another team hasn’t sent them the specs. Leaders operating in a simplicity mindset short-circuit those complaints. They make decisions quickly and cleanly, and they inspire those around them to do the same.

What about those of us who are not decision makers and stuck with “complexity”? How can we advocate “simplicity” to our management? Sometimes it is difficult to get people to change.

It could just be in the positioning of it. Simplification IS an efficiency exercise, which management LOVES. Kill a stupid rule is an excellent way to get them on board.

When you talk about 45% in meetings/23% doing email, shouldn’t these really be considered at least partially as productive time? Generally, we need to work with other people to come up with the best solutions.

Of course. I’m not saying ALL emails and meetings are bad. I’m saying that many of them aren’t necessary. The goal is to eliminate the self-imposed and unnecessary work to make more space to focus on the necessary ones.

How does one manage a change in a siloed organization that espouses innovation, but is encumbered by legacy structure?

Simplification starts on the ground level. The individual level. I strongly suggest to teams to simplify within their sphere of control first. You’ll get results, and others will soon want to follow your lead. I’ve seen it happen hundreds of times.

I can’t help but think this applies well to home and family life as well. Do you hear stories from people where they applied this at home? What is your favorite?

Absolutely. I tell people to try the exercises on their personal life. Especially the exercise on figuring out where to simplify your work/life. I discussed in my speech creating a t-chart, and on the left side, right down all the typical things you do in a week. Circle the ones that are valuable/meaningful to your life goals. If a task isn’t circles, why are you doing it? Can you stop doing it for awhile and see what happens? Often in our personal life we do things our of obligation that just suck our time and aren’t meaningful to us.  Then on the right side of the t-chart, list all thing things where you WISH you could spend you time. What holds you back from doing that?

Scroll to Top