Are You Making Things Too Complex?

Are You Making Things Too Complex?

12.06.07Ron Ashkenas

Ron Ashkenas on HBR's IdeaCast

Listen to the recording here. Read the transcript below.

PAUL MICHELMAN: Hello, and welcome to the HBR IdeaCast. I’m Paul Michelman, director of content for And I’m on the phone today with Ron Ashkenas, whose December 2007 Harvard Business Review article is entitled “Simplicity-Minded Management.” Ron, thanks for joining the program today.

RON ASHKENAS: Thank you, Paul. Pleasure to be here.

PAUL MICHELMAN: Ron, in your article, you tackle a pretty weighty topic, organizational complexity. And you offer up a practical guide to stripping complexity out of organizations. So before we jump in and talk about some of the remedies, let’s talk about the problem. You put forth a thesis that circumstances have conspired recently to add increasing amounts of complexity to organizations. Can you explain a little bit of your thinking here?

RON ASHKENAS: Well, I think anybody who lives and works in organizations, particularly big ones, will find this perfectly obvious. But as organizations get larger, and there’s more technology and new technology, and there’s more globalization, and there’s more competition, and there’s more regulation, all of these factors together create a great amount of complexity. People have to put together processes, and controls, and reviews, and organization structures to deal with all these things. And they have to be done on a worldwide basis. And because of technology, they have to be done fast, quickly, et cetera. Put it all together– it makes life very complex. And that’s both on an organizational basis and on an individual basis.

PAUL MICHELMAN: So let’s talk about individuals, because I think that should be the focus of the bulk of our conversation today. In addition to some of the broader organizational remedies you suggest in your article, you talk about what you termed the hidden cause of complexity. And that is the actions of individual managers, and how they unwittingly add to the complexity of their organizations through their individual actions. You list several actions in this piece that you think are root causes of organizational complexity stemming from the individual manager. And I’d like to walk through those, ask you to shed a little light on them, and talk about the remedies. The first is an age-old favorite, and that is micromanagement.

RON ASHKENAS: Well, I think just in general, and this is beyond just managers, I think you can categorize some people as simplifiers, and some people as complexifiers– people who can sort of cut to the chase and say, here’s the one or two things we need to do, and people who give convoluted explanations of things and like to talk in various circles. And after a while, you don’t quite know where they’re going. So I think that’s sort of an overall thing about individuals.

With micromanagement, most managers want to know what’s going on. And they’ll ask all kinds of questions. The simplifier managers, versus the complexifiers, will be very clear about what are the few key questions that they need to ask, who they need to ask them of, and at what level, what kind of metrics and measures they’re looking for. Sometimes because of managers’ own anxiety, they get down into all kinds of details and ask all kinds of questions, which create more work than is necessary. And managers cascade down to multiple levels, start to scurry about to answer all those questions. That creates enormous amounts of complexity.

I cite one example in the article– this is of a CEO, but we see this at multiple levels– of creating various kinds of reviews that, on a regular basis, are asking dozens and dozens of questions, which, if you go down multiple levels, create a whole machinery and infrastructure of people answering those questions. That’s very complex.

PAUL MICHELMAN: How do we move complexifiers to become simplifiers?

RON ASHKENAS: Well, one is to think about, what are the few things you really need to know about? And that’s in terms of asking for data. And what are the few key goals that you want people to achieve, and to really be focused on?

I think the master of this was Jack Welch, who taught me and many people a lot about simplification, where even though he ran a very large, complex, global organization spanning many kinds of products and industries, he had very simple questions, like what does it take to be number one or number two in your industry. Or he would ask his managers, if you were coming on to this job as a new manager for this job, what would you do differently? Or if there was a dot-com business that would come and compete against your business, what would they do to compete? And what do you have to do to respond? Very simple questions.

So one of the keys to becoming a simplifier is to think of very simple, straightforward questions that get your people to really challenge their own thinking and get to the essence of what they have to do to make the organization more effective.

PAUL MICHELMAN: OK. So the next factor you cite here is poor meeting management.

RON ASHKENAS: I think we’ve all lived in meetings like this. Many managers I talked to say that they spend 50%, 75%, or more of their time in meetings. And yet everybody knows all the rules about meetings, that you should have an agenda. It should be very clear what you’re trying to accomplish. Only the right people ought to be there. There should be preparation ahead of time. There should be follow up afterwards. It should be clear who the leader is, et cetera. But I think most people who go to meetings don’t find those things present.

So how you run a meeting– and you don’t have to be a CEO to change this pattern. Anybody can do it. But how do you run a meeting? Who do you invite? How do you prepare for it? Putting those disciplines in place reduces complexity.

PAUL MICHELMAN: OK. The next is a personal favorite of mine– unclear, redundant, or conflicting assignments.

RON ASHKENAS: I find that a number of managers, particularly when they’re not quite sure what to do, they ask a number of people to go study this, go figure this out, go work on this. And they sometimes give multiple assignments to– or the same assignment, or a similar assignment, or an assignment that overlaps, to multiple people. But they don’t necessarily tell all those people that’s what they’re doing.

Now sometimes when I’ve challenged executives about this and said, why are you doing this, they say, well, it’s a test. I want to get the best thinking of a number of different people. What it usually does is, just creates a tremendous amount of complexity and churn. People want to respond well. They go off and do good research, thinking. They ask questions. They often ask the same questions to the same people. And that creates redundant work for almost everybody.

PAUL MICHELMAN: OK. So the next up, Ron, comes at complexity from a different angle. And that is email etiquette. What do you mean by that?

RON ASHKENAS: Well, I think all of us are familiar with being in the email world now. Whether we’re at our desktop, or whether we are addicted to our blackberries, we get emails on a 24/7 basis. Most managers I talk to receive dozens and dozens, if not hundreds, of emails a day, and thousands of emails over the course of a month.

With that kind of volume of email traffic, it’s important to be very selective about how you use email, and to follow a certain discipline. Too many of us, myself included, use the Respond to All or Reply All button. And you end up having a whole string or trail of emails that go to multiple people, even on trivial things, like setting up a meeting, or finding out whether somebody is available in a certain date, which goes to dozens of different people, all of whom don’t need to have that information.

The same thing with many documents that are attached to emails, which are draft documents and sort of get circulated– people work on them and send them back. And the control over what’s the master document, so that people need to work on only the core document, instead of working on various versions of it– now that’s not only a problem in people’s personal complexity. But for an organization that needs to manage document control and retention, and document destruction, which ones to keep and not to keep, when there’s so many versions floating around out there in cyberspace, becomes a problem of complexity.

PAUL MICHELMAN: Now talking about documents leads us right into the fifth problem you cite in terms of individual complexity. And this is one that a former boss of mine fell prey to– PowerPoint perfection.

RON ASHKENAS: Ah, yes. This is one of my favorites, as well. It’s become a cottage industry. And PowerPoint is an incredibly great tool to convey complex ideas with charts, graphs, bullet points. Now some people, of course, mistake using Word documents in PowerPoint format, so they fill up their PowerPoint charts with so many words that it’s impossible to read.

But it’s become a cottage industry. And I know many consulting firms, and even some companies, outsource their PowerPoint charts to India, where they have people working on a 24/7 basis, taking all sorts of data and putting it into charts and graphs. What you end up with is people who are weighing their contributions to a company on the basis of how good, comprehensive, and fancy their charts look. And I don’t know how many times that I’ve seen managers sitting in meetings, watching chart after chart after chart, Powerpoint presentations, where it’s not quite clear what’s the point. Is there a decision here? Is there a key piece of data that we’re going to need to look at?

One example I cite in the in the article is a company called Nortel Communications– that one of the executive vice presidents there, Dennis Carey, instituted a rule called the one-minute rule, where PowerPoint presentations, you get one minute. So if you can put one or two charts up in one minute, then you make your point. And then everything else, you can leave it as handouts or attachments, et cetera. But you have to have the real essence in one minute.

It’s very similar to Mark Twain’s old line about, he would have written a shorter letter, but he didn’t have the time. It really requires you to think about what’s the essence of what you want to say. And what do you want to convey to your audience, and what kind of decision or action do you want to come out of this? And you ought to be able to do that in one minute, and everything else is commentary.

PAUL MICHELMAN: Listening to you talk about these things, these sound like sensible and valuable pieces of advice. They also strike me that they take a certain amount of rigor, rigor of thinking, being very disciplined, being very thoughtful about the way you go about managing your unit. How do you get into this mindset? Let’s say I want to put a sticky on my desk that reminds me to keep things simple. What should it say?

RON ASHKENAS: Well, simple is not easy. And we shouldn’t mistake the two. You really need to ask yourself a few key questions. What do I really need to accomplish today? What are the few key drivers of success that I need to keep my eyes on? And is there a line of sight between what I’m doing today to those key drivers of success? If you keep asking yourself that question, and if that’s the sticky you have on your desk– what are those few key drivers of success, and is what I’m doing moving towards that, in a way that I can see the connection– then you’re going to get into a greater degree of simplicity.

But it’s not easy. A lot of this is anxiety-driven. We want to keep ourselves busy. We want to look good. We want to know everything. And every little bit of extra work that we create, we create even more extra work for other people. So it’s a constant struggle. It’s a bit like an addiction.

One of the things I mentioned in the article is that for senior managers in particular, but for all managers, it’s good to have other colleagues that you talk about this periodically. Say, what am I doing that’s creating complexity in an unnecessary way? How can I be more simple? And challenge each other about that. Because it’s not quite so easy to just look in the mirror and say, talk to yourself. You need somebody else who can hold the mirror up for you and help you think about this.

PAUL MICHELMAN: Ron Ashkenas, great advice. Thank you very much for joining us.

RON ASHKENAS: It’s been a pleasure, thank you.

PAUL MICHELMAN: If you’d like to learn more on Ron Ashkenas’s ideas, you can pick up the December 2007 copy of the Harvard Business Review, or visit the Harvard Business Review website at We hope you’ve enjoyed this week’s program. To learn more on these and other management topics, please visit our website at Thanks for listening, and be sure to join us again next week.

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