How often do you experience complexity at work? Once a week? A dozen times? Constantly? If you answered “constantly,” you’re among a growing majority of the workforce. In fact, 74% of people around the world rate their work environment as either “complex” or “highly complex,” according to a Deloitte survey.
So, how did we end up here? While technology is a convenient scapegoat, humans created the bureaucracy and busywork that holds us back from doing the jobs we were hired to do. And whenever we say yes to meetings that waste our time and reports that re-enforce the status quo, we’re choosing complexity — consciously or unconsciously.
Through the process of researching and writing Why Simple Wins, I surveyed or interviewed thousands of employees on nearly every continent. I found that regardless of industry, country, or career level, people spend nearly all of their workday on meetings and emails. While a small percentage of those meetings and emails are important for completing valuable work, the majority aren’t.
It’s easy to point the finger at employees who constantly host meetings that should’ve been emails, but the blame game isn’t a solution. Instead, turn your focus inward. As leaders, it’s critical to examine whether we’re contributing a culture of complexity. To get a sense of where you stand on the spectrum of Simplifier vs. Complicator, answer the following three questions.
1. Do you encourage your team to do more work…or to do valuable work?
2. Are you focused on meetings, emails and reports…or on the unspoken needs of your customers/clients?
3. Do you reward nonstop activity…or deep, strategic thinking?
If you answered yes to the phrases after the ellipses, congratulations. You’re a shining example of simplification. But if you answered yes to the phrases before the ellipsis, your leadership habits are fueling a culture of complexity. Do you want to stay in an endless cycle of busywork…or do you want to simplify your operating system? If you’re equal parts willing and courageous, you can shift what you do at work so there’s more time for imagination, innovation and strategic thinking.
Start with this manageable yet noble goal: To say yes with intention and no with purpose every single day. The late, great Steve Jobs was known for asking members of his C-suite “How many times did you say no today?” Jobs understood the importance of moving through the workday with purpose and this question re-enforced his stance against distractions and minutiae.
With your own org or teams, decide which time-wasting requests or tasks to decline moving forward. These could include things like “stop attending the weekly business review meeting” or “say no to same-day updates on X feature or Y product.” Then, collectively determine which types of projects you and your team will now take on with intent. Consider establishing criteria for work in this category. For example, say yes if the assignment or task directly benefits our customers or clients. Or, say yes if it demonstrates potential to generate a new revenue stream or a threshold amount of money annually.
To reenforce this as an expected habit instead of a one-off activity, spend five minutes in your weekly stand-up asking a few employees to share what they said no to this week. As people get more comfortable (or competitive) around saying no, an increase in valuable work and a decrease in frustration should start to emerge.
While time-sucks won’t disappear overnight, as a leader, you can encourage employees to say no to busywork today. Simplification is a purposeful process that ultimately leads teams to projects and initiatives that are meaningful to them and valuable to the business. And when those two objectives are aligned, your culture becomes less about replying to emails and more about delighting your shareholders, customers or clients.