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6 Simple Rules for Simplifying Everything

Apr 25, 2014

In their new book from Harvard Business Review Press—Six Simple Rules: How To Manage Complexity Without Getting Complicated—Boston Consulting Group partners Yves Morieux and Peter Tollman make a valiant attempt at helping increasingly complex organizations improve their performance in an increasingly complex world. We asked Morieux to be similarly valiant in boiling down their rules for readers. (You're welcome!)

1. Understand what your employees actually do. "Most management approaches pay less attention to the day-to-day reality of how people behave and why, and instead add unnecessary functions and procedures. We use the term 'smart simplicity' to describe the approach of discovering what people actually do and why. The central insight? People act rationally, even if their actions create problems for the organization. They are trying to look after their own interests. The essence of smart simplicity is to understand that, and then change the conditions inside the organization so their interests align with what you need them to do."

2. Find your fighters. Conflict is not necessarily a good thing in and of itself. But it can be a sign that people are actually doing the hard work of cooperating, which can be difficult and create tension and resentment. But the people who are resented might be the glue that holds cooperation together. We call them 'integrators.' They're often not in positions of formal power. They often operate at the intersection between two groups. They have an interest in cooperation and the power to make collaboration happen.Integrators can be well-liked, but they can also be resented. They are forcing others to make hard choices. You can identify integrators by the fact that they are the focus of strong feelings, either positive or negative. Give integrators the power, incentives and authority to succeed."

3. Give more people more power... "The real key to performance is combining cooperation with autonomy. The problem with standard approaches to an increasingly complex business environment is that by creating new layers and processes and systems to deal with these challenges you also sacrifice people’s autonomy. That makes the organization less agile. One of the effects of smart simplicity is to balance autonomy and cooperation. It gives people enough power to take the risk of interpreting rules, using their judgment and intelligence. If more employees have power to make decisions in your organization, that means they can solve problems on their own.

4. ...and take away resources from everybody. "Having fewer resources means people have no choice but to rely on each other, which helps to foster cooperation. Think of a household with several people living in it. If those people own multiple televisions, there is no need for them to cooperate about what to watch. But if you take away all the televisions except one, they will have to cooperate. Do they want to watch baseball or Shakespeare?"

5. Make sure your employees eat their own cooking. "People work better when they understand–and have to live with–the consequences of their actions. A car company’s products were famously hard to repair. Then the company sent its engineers to work in repairs. Confronted with the repair problem themselves, they quickly found solutions to make cars easier to fix."

6. Don’t punish failure—punish the failure to cooperate. "If people are afraid to fail, they will hide problems from you and your peers. Reward people who surface problems—and punish those who don’t come together to help solve them."

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