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Nov 24, 2015
This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.

Complexity in the world is hitting us at a rapid pace, whether in our personal lives or the dynamic workplace.

A quote traced back to President Woodrow Wilson, although often used to emphasize the importance of short but impactful speeches, speaks to the challenge of reducing complexity:

If it is a 10-minute speech it takes me all of two weeks to prepare it; if it is a half-hour speech it takes me a week; if I can talk as long as I want to it requires no preparation at all. I am ready now.”

According to the recent study, Taming organizational complexity — start at the top, which was published by The Economist Intelligence Unit and sponsored by SAP, executives at large companies around the world reported they spend an average of 21 percent of their time managing complexity instead of undertaking more productive tasks.

If that share of time could be cut in half, the study estimates that 8.6 million hours could be spent more productively every week by executives in the U.S. alone — 45 minutes per day, per executive.

Simplifying is not simple

So the question becomes this: How can companies, and more specifically the human resources function, tackle the issues of complexity in the workplace to attract, retain, and develop the best talent?

Well for one, simplifying is not simple. The HR function needs to keep a guiding principle of simplicity when designing new processes, programs, and products at the forefront. Always question, is this simple? Does this make sense? If something is hard to understand or explain to others, it’s probably too complex.

Here are a three ways to build simplicity in the workplace which will help create a strong leadership pipeline while sustaining the success of any company.

1. Leadership Development

Establish a leadership principle or competency that sets the expectation that simplicity is king. According to The Economist Intelligence Unit report, leadership decisions on structure and processes, along with follow-through on those decisions, are key to reducing complexity.

In other words, if the leadership fails, the efforts to simplify fail as well.

In order to bridge this gap, companies must make it crystal clear what behaviors and actions are expected by leaders and measure them on their achievement of this principle through a employee survey, and hold them accountable through the performance management process.

Additionally, create a leadership development program that supports the education of behaviors and actions needed to achieve simplicity. Also, consider developing a robust leadership development curriculum, to help leaders recognize complexity, give them tactics to simplify and challenge complexity, and encourage their team to do the same.

Lastly, reward simplicity to leaders whom create simplicity, in addition to achieving their goals.

2. Mentoring

Establish a network of mentors who model the behaviors of simplicity. Behaviors can include focus, trust, not over-engineering, and addressing the root causes of problems.

Learning through role models is one of the most effective ways to retain information and change behavior. Additionally, create a simple database of mentors that employees who are seeking a mentor can browse and select from based on availability and interests.

Lastly, promote and encourage a mentor for everyone. Through the goal and development planning process promote the values of a mentor to encourage every direct report to get a mentor.

3. Succession Planning

Succession planning is integral to ensuring your company has a pipeline of “the right” leaders to take your company into the future.

Develop successors by identifying people for key roles that are flagged as not yet ready as well as invest time to develop them to become ready. Establish a goal to hire a percentage of candidates internally and ensure the recruiting team hires from the succession plan.

Companies do not want to hire internally for every role, but many organizations do a very poor job of utilizing and developing the identified successors.

Change isn’t always key

While often times a change is important for adapting the organization, sometimes it just breeds complexity.

As an HR professional, always make sure before changing something that you challenge yourself.

  • Is it already working?
  • Does it need to change?
  • If a change is warranted, how can we create a process that is moving in the direction of simplicity, even if you need to sacrifice something else?

Achieving simplicity is not an easy task but with a carefully planned, well thought-out and strongly executed plan, the HR function can help organizations (and the culture) move the needle from complex to simple.

Good luck on your journey to create a culture of simplicity, it’s not simple.

This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.