Organizational leaders often speak fluently about mission, values and purpose. They post high-minded statements on their social pages and on the company website. But if your business is teeming with excessive rules, processes or bureaucracy, all that messaging is empty rhetoric. Nothing separates individuals from a sense that their work is worthwhile than the curse of complexity.
Complexity’s cousin is busywork, the meaningless, soul-sucking tasks that keep us occupied but add little value to the business: endless emails, unproductive meetings and reports for the sake of reporting. If complexity goes unchecked, it creeps into even the smallest, nimblest companies. It slows teams down, rendering them less creative, less innovative and less successful.
Complexity drains the life out of companies because it forces people to break a sweat while receiving nothing good in return. Any job worth having comes with a certain amount of pressure, but the stress arising from complexity is entirely different: it’s stress without reward. A recent study from Siegel + Gale found that employees in simplified work environments are 84% more likely to stay in their jobs. Why? Because when you get the work right, you get the culture right.
The impact of simplicity on your daily work can be demonstrated by a single exercise. Draw a line down the center of a piece of paper, dividing it into two columns. Consider the unique set of talents and desires you bring to work with you every day. If you could rework your role so it better leveraged your talents in support of your company’s goals, what would you spend your day doing that you’re not currently doing? In the left column, make a list of these new work activities and title it “Valuable Work.”
Maybe your Valuable Work column includes “anticipate strategic threats” or “identify hidden marketplace opportunities.” Maybe it skews toward product development or new ways of selling those products. Just imagine how eager to contribute you’d be every morning if you had more time for the things you care about, and if you were wasting less time on the things you don’t.
Speaking of, now ask yourself: “What current tasks occupy most of my time?” Check last month’s calendar and to-do lists to jog your memory, and be sure to list specific tasks — not general projects — and your role on that task. For example, write “run weekly staff meeting” instead of just “meetings.” Write all your answers in the right column and title it “Current Tasks.”
Compare your two columns: How do they differ with regard to busywork and work that really matters?
As a final step, circle every item in the right column (Current Tasks) that adds value to the business. Now look at anything you didn’t circle and ask yourself: “Which of these tasks can I eliminate, outsource or streamline to make space for things in the Valuable Work column?” Identify your targets by looking at your list of current tasks and honestly answering the questions below.
- Which of my current tasks don’t bring value to the business?
- Would anyone really miss this task if I stopped doing it? (If the answer is “nobody,” get rid of it.)
- Is anyone else already doing this task and could that person take ownership of it?
- If I had to hand off two of my responsibilities, what do I give away and to whom? What’s stopping me from doing this today?
- Which of my daily tasks could become weekly? Which weekly tasks could be done monthly?
- What steps could be eliminated from this task?
- If I had to get the same amount of work done in half the time, what would I do differently?
You may be in a position to implement your solutions immediately or you might need to get buy-in from leadership. Either way, be willing to test the elimination of a task for a few weeks or months, to see if anyone actually misses it. And if someone does, that’s okay: it’s a sign that the task may be more valuable than it seemed.
Whether you’re seeking a starting point for simplifying or solving a specific issue, the above questions can serve as a litmus test for simplification. We all have the power to make meaningful improvements in our work — without a lengthy, formal process. Individually or with our teams, we can delve into the nuances and details of our work, cutting away what doesn’t add value and getting closer to the work that really matters.