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The Power of Simplicity

Many strategic plans fail to get executed for a simple reason—too much complexity.  Read this interview with Simple Solutions authors Tom Schmitt, president and CEO of FedEx Global supply chain, and Arnold Perl, a partner at the law firm of Ford & Harrison LLP, to learn why they argue that the simplest plans are often the most powerful.

Would you argue that a leader’s number one priority is to simplify things for everyone around him? 

Schmitt  and Perl: No—a leader’s number one priority is to lead, to inspire, to motivate. A good leader inherently does simplify things. That’s what makes him an effective leader.

That’s what our book is all about—winning and having a good time doing it. It’s all a matter of maintaining a balance between left and right brain thinking, that is, passions and tools. The leader who does this inspires passion in his team and get results.

What’s the number one barrier to achieving simplicity?

Schmitt  and Perl: Obviously, making things overly complex is a huge barrier. An effective leader will inherently keep it simple. It is much easier for an organization to succeed when it is led by someone who is able to communicate clearly, whose thought process is clear. With this type of leader, an organization knows where it needs to go and what it needs to achieve to get there. Conversely, the opposite type leader usually creates quite a bit of chaos in an organization.

What are some telltale signs of an overly complex organization? 

Schmitt  and Perl: Too many layers, too much confusion—mixed signals, mixed messages. Too many meaningless meetings that leave participants confused about what, if anything, just happened. Another telltale sign is when most of the departments do not collaborate across functional lines. It leads to delays in decision making and turf wars between functional areas. An overly complex organization is usually not one that is sought after by the brightest and best job candidates.

You say that one of the ground rules for achieving simplicity is to communicate content, not process. What do you mean by that?

Schmitt: Anyone who works in my organizations and updates me on a project knows not to walk in with a “process” report, that is, “we are meeting every week, we are preparing for a leadership presentation later this month, we are running reports," and so on. Instead, they will tell me the progress on the initiative—“all indications are that within two weeks sales will be able to see all revenue and volume information in one report instead of four.” In other words, process describes steps you’re taking, while content describes progress you’re making and outcomes—the real news.

You write that “one of the ways great business leaders differentiate themselves is by…boiling things down to a simple statement, vision or direction.” What are some of the useful questions leaders can ask themselves in order to arrive at that simple vision? 

Schmitt and Perl: I truly believe there is a strong correlation between simplicity of approach and end product on one side and clarity of thought on the other. The ability to distill the most complex issues into simple, easy to communicate points is essential to success and it’s what I strive to get across to my team. In “Simple Solutions” we talk about getting goals on a pocket-sized laminated card. It can be done and both Arnold and I have done it. If you’re able to do that, you are clear about what you want to achieve.

Is there such a thing as oversimplification? How do you avoid that? 

Schmitt and Perl: Goals, communications should be a simple as you can make them without missing the point. It goes back to the clarity of thought. It’s not easy to simplify a complex issue, but it is easy to oversimplify, especially if you’re missing the crucial points.

Oversimplification would be framing an issue as “our sales reps are too busy – they need more time.” The true story is, “we want our sales reps to spend as much time as possible doing what they do best—talking to customers. We’re trying to reduce the time they spend on administrative and issues resolution duties.”

One of the methods of achieving results you outline in the book is the “”What would have to be true?” method. Describe what that entails. Why is it so powerful?

Schmitt: This way of thinking is good because it forces you to see success—to see how that success will look—how it will feel.

At the beginning of each fiscal year, I ask my direct reports to write the victory speech they will give the following year to our sales division, whether or not they’ll actually be called upon to do so. In doing this, they are thinking of all the ways they succeeded—they’re visualizing the success. All that’s needed then is to think, “What would have to be true for me to achieve this?”

In your chapter on execution, you emphasize that leaders should be biased towards action. Why is that so important?

Schmitt: Action is almost always better than inaction. Be directionally correct. It’s not likely you’ll ever have enough time to get to the absolutely perfect answer.

Take supply chains, for example. Keep on working until you’re absolutely certain you have the perfect answer and what do you accomplish? While you're busy running models looking for perfection, your competitors will be out there giving the customers what they need.

Perl: A major reason for management paralysis is the fear of failure and criticism. Self-confidence in yourself and in your team leads to a proactive approach. This doesn’t mean ready– fire–aim. But it does mean acting once a matter is directionally correct.