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Keep it Simple, Stupid!

Keep it Simple, Stupid!

In my experience, simplicity goes hand-in-hand with focus. You’ve probably heard the expression “trying to boil the ocean”. This creates a great visual of what happens when you spread your attention too thinly to try to achieve a broad range of outcomes, and ultimately achieve very little.

Do you remember as a child taking a magnifying glass and focusing the rays of the sun onto the smallest possible area you could? If you managed to get that right, you could actually burn your skin… and the budding playground sociopaths would perform this early science experiment on ants and small bugs. 

But if you pull the focus of the magnifying glass back ever so slightly to widen the area of the sun’s circle, it loses all of its power. 

We all try to do too much, for all the right reasons, and with the best intent. But, more often than not, it’s actually counter-productive. The artist Hans Hofman said: “The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.” 

As a leader, value, performance, and forward momentum all rely on having a crystal clear focus on the right things. And one of the most important focus areas for any organization is deciding where to invest its scarce resources (money, assets, people, and time).

The investment proposal is one of the most important communication tools in business, because it lays out clearly why a certain investment should be made.

For a sizable investment, the written business case proposal could be well over a hundred pages long outlining the investment in some detail, and it may have to be presented several times along the way at different stage gates, before the project is formally approved to go ahead. So it’s easy to get lost in that complexity.

But I used to say to my guys, “You need to be able to write a summary of the business case on the back of a table napkin.” It has to be simple, at its core: 

  • How much do we need to invest? 
  • Why do we think that’s a good idea? 
  • When, and where, will we see the benefit? 
  • How confident should we be that this will ultimately be successful? 
  • Why is this investment of our resources a better use of them than anything else we could be focusing on right now? 

The simplicity that this brings enables the robust debate of big issues, allowing for challenge and comparison, without getting bogged down in the minutiae. It enables you to clearly articulate purpose, strategy, and intent. 

The simpler you can make the process, the more likely it is that you’ll arrive at the right answer. It’s so important in being able to make choices about where we put our focus and attention. And our overarching goal is to achieve high-value simplicity!

One other principle that warrants a mention is that perfectionism hides in complexity. In case you’re wondering, perfectionism isn’t a good thing: it’s a barrier to progress. The pursuit of perfection sounds noble, but more often than not, perfectionism simply masks the fear of getting something wrong, and the tendency to procrastinate. 

It’s about finding warmth and comfort in irrelevant layers of detail, and it perpetuates the use of expert and hierarchical power, instead of the power that comes from influence and pure common sense rationality.

Your leadership mantra has to be excellence over perfection. Otherwise you’re going to end up working tirelessly on something that doesn’t make any real difference. You’d be surprised how quickly you actually reach the point of diminishing returns, and you can spend a huge amount of time, energy and money trying to solve for the extreme outliers: covering off the risks and issues that will most likely never eventuate.

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