'Making the simple complicated is commonplace. Making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that's creativity' - Charles Mingus
My passionate belief is that simplicity - even in today's allegedly 'complex' world of business, leadership and management - is a legitimate, relevant and achievable aspiration.
I've been working since I left education at 16 and in those 39 years I've yet to meet anyone - boss, peer or subordinate - in my work who has pleaded desperately with me: 'Oh how I wish my work was more complex. I believe anything we do at work - and particularly if we are managers or leaders - can be made simpler.'
I worked for 35 years in healthcare management in the National Health Service (NHS). Let me assure you the NHS - the third largest organisation in the world after the Chinese Army and the Indian Railways - has a complexity all of its own. If you want to test that hypothesis ask any person who doesn't work in the NHS to explain how the NHS works from government level down to your local NHS. If you find one person in 100 who can explain half of the structure correctly I would be pleasantly surprised. Actually if you ask most of the people (1.3 million) who work inside the NHS the same question the percentage of correct answers would probably not be much higher!
I believe many employees at the front line in healthcare - and I would say in most organisations - laugh behind the backs of managers who talk in jargon that leaves the people doing the work at the coalface bewildered, frustrated and sometimes demotivated.
The NHS is an outstanding example of an organisation that has created a language of complexity all of its own. To be fair it is a language that was not perhaps designed to confuse but the fact is it achieves that objective. This language must have been created by managers and people working in the NHS - after all, who else would have invented it?
I think employees - particularly at the front line - want it in straightforward, plain language, not in the form of the latest management jargon. Put another way - 'If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it's probably a duck.'
So what can be done to begin to simplify management?
I think the answer is in the hands and the mouths of every manager in every organisation. There are two easy and immediate things managers can do to simplify.
Firstly they can start to speak and write in plain language - it really is that simple. As a passionate advocate of simplicity I suppose you would expect me to say that.
In my NHS career I regularly challenged managers who persisted in speaking a language of unnecessary complexity. I remember asking one manager to repeat something he had just said in English, such was his awesome command of technical management jargon. I would not have had the confidence to do that in my early years as an aspiring manager but as I become more experienced, older and more confident I found it easier to challenge people but in a way that was neither hurtful nor personal. Quite often in my NHS career people sat around in meetings nodding knowingly at the right times, seemingly understanding the oratory of the manager holding court. And yet I had the feeling a number of people in the room had no idea what was being said.
I believe we are moving rapidly to a time when there will be less differential between what managers deliver and what the employees in his/her team can achieve. In fact I've always believed that. Secondly the best advice I was ever given as a manager was to give away the power I was perceived to have. The best way to gain power is to let go of power. We all are naturally nervous about that concept because it makes us think: What about my job? If 'they' can do my job, what will I do?
Actually the truth of the matter is 'they' can do your job. If you let them do the bits of your job that you do not enjoy or do not stretch you enough then you can free up time to do more of the things you enjoy. You can make more time to reflect and plan - doing the visioning so that you can provide the leadership you are paid to provide and expected to provide by people who are in theory your 'followers'.
Try giving away some of the work you do not enjoy doing - it works and there will be surprises for you in that some people will love doing some parts of your job that you most detest!
Some of this may seem threatening. I believe we are moving rapidly to a time when there will be less differential between what managers deliver and what the employees in his/her team can achieve. In fact I've always believed that. In 2008, with masses of information at everyone's fingertips through Information Technology, all managers have to illustrate what is different and special about them. If they wish to be called managers and justify higher rates of pay and status than that of front line staff there simply has to be a unique selling point.
The question must be: What unique skills and expertise is it that I bring to the table as a manager? And by the way, many years experience is not the right answer.
Finally, here are five practical steps that anyone can implement out there in Complex Management Land.
1. At your team meeting every week or every month, depending on the frequency of meetings, ask someone to do a five minute presentation (without using PowerPoint) called 'My big simplicity idea for our team is ...'
2. Invite a customer to read three emails or letters you have sent in the previous week and ask them to give you feedback about the language you used
3. Invite two 16-year-old students who are friends to attend your team meeting and ask them to give the team members honest feedback at the end of the meeting about the language used.
4. Find a report about absolutely anything two sides of A4 long. Send the report to a colleague and ask him/her to return it to you reduced to one side of A4. Judge for yourself whether one side is adequate to get the message over.
5. Ask one of your team members to write a story on one side of A4 called 'A complicated problem in this department/team explained for an audience of secondary school students (11-16 year olds)'. Send the story to a local schoolteacher and ask for feedback from the students at his/her school.
Written by Trevor Gay
Trevor Gay, MA Management (Healthcare) is an independent leadership and management coach, trainer, consultant and author with a self confessed obsession for simplicity and liberating front line staff. Trevor's career from age 16 was spent in National Health Service management until he decided to leave the NHS in 2004. He now enjoys the independence to express his views and reflect on what he has learned both from his 30 years' practical experience as a manager and his academic study of leadership and management. You can contact Trevor by e-mail at . . . email@example.com