Fighting Organizational Complexity: 3 Steps to Simplify and Focus Your Work

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Organizational complexity is strangling innovation, productivity, and engagement. Witnessed in the webs of matrixed structures and RACI maps, this complexity is fogging people’s focus, keeping us from spending our time and energy on top strategic priorities. Instead, we get sucked into low-value, reactive busy work.

We, individually, are the victims of complexity, but we are also responsible for allowing it to drive constant distraction, cloud our focus, and sap our energy. We live highly cluttered lives; we are too responsive to interruptions. We do not nurture, protect, and direct our most productive energy.

Our phones vibrate and ping whenever we receive a new email, a calendar invite, a Facebook update, or a notification from any of the plethora of apps that want our attention. These disruptions break our focus and reduce our ability to think deeply.

Yet we don’t seem to mind. We are so addicted to our phones that we suffer withdrawal when we’re away from them for any period of time. According to one publication, we check our phones more than 100 times per day and up to every six seconds in the evening.

Our computers are no better. Instant messages pop up constantly to break our focus. We work with multiple programs and browser tabs open at once, clicking back and forth between them endlessly. We simply make it too easy to get distracted from the work that matters.

Our calendars are booked back to back with meetings; our global teams demand an always-on mentality, and that’s what we give them. We do not recognize when we do our best work and religiously protect this time. We don’t let ourselves recharge when we’re not doing work, thereby increasing the speed of burnout and generally limiting our potential.

In almost every one of the 100+ companies I have consulted with over the years, I have witnessed leaders simply going from one meeting to the next without breaks; no time to reflect, process, and synthesize. No time to recharge and refocus. The best opportunities get lost in the jumble of various things that take up their time. Having to deal with so much naturally limits the depth of a person’s thinking and focus and, consequently, the quality of their contributions.

3 Steps to Simply Work and Life

Many of us have lost touch with the work that truly delivers the greatest value and impact to the business. We stay busy on the tasks that feel most urgent, stuck in firefighting mode, responding to crises that keep us from operating in a strategically proactive manner.

I remember a conversation I had with a highly experienced executive coach. I asked him how much time on average his leaders spent on reactive work like responding to email or attending low-value meetings. He said they spent at least two-thirds of the day this way, with many allowing all their time to be absorbed by reactive work.

The opportunity to refocus on the highest priorities and remove or redesign the low-value, non-core, reactive work is a huge one, but it is rarely seized. If our work habits were built around prioritization, time management, and focus, the spike in productivity, strategic impact, and cost savings would be tremendous.

While it is very easy to be overwhelmed by the complexity of the contemporary business world, there are three discrete steps you can take to simplify your work and your life:

1. Clarify What Is Most Important

You can only begin to remove the tasks that are not useful if you first have a clear sense of the bigger picture. Without clarity on the organization’s strategy, mission, or vision, you can’t get rid of the clutter.

When this clarity is missing in a company, people lose sight of what is most important. They are left to adhere blindly to their manager’s instructions instead of being able to think and act for themselves. A broader understanding of the strategic context has to be the first step in simplifying your work.

Some questions that can help you clarify your organizational purpose include:

  1. What does success look like?
  2. What is the best outcome we could achieve?
  3. What is going to deliver the greatest value?

2. Understand the Current Reality

Once you have established a clear understanding of the strategic context and your key objectives within that context, you can begin organizing the chaos.

Start by obtaining a comprehensive picture of the current state, whether it be an outline of how work is done, a set of possible features for a product, or something else. Once this data dump of current-state information is collected, you can extract from it themes you can use to organize the minutiae. By turning many seemingly discrete items into a few categories, you can start making sense of the complexity.

Some questions to help you organize the chaos include:

  1. What are the themes?
  2. Can the themes be organized by relative strategic importance?
  3. Is there a way of assessing the degree of ease in removing or integrating non-core components?

3. Simplify

Once you have established the groupings and a clear idea of what you’re trying to achieve, the next step is to prioritize.

Reduce and remove those things that are not essential. This is a key step in simplifying, but it is also very challenging. It takes a lot of creative problem-solving, brainstorming, and design to reveal how something can be streamlined and simplified. The French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry put it nicely: “It seems that perfection is reached not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

Key questions that can be posed to help reduce something complex down to its core include:

  1. What is most strategically important?
  2. What is least important and easiest to remove?
  3. How can non-core elements be redesigned or integrated?

The opportunity to take a step back and simplify complexity is tremendous. It will take focus and determination, but the potential return in innovation, productivity, and customer satisfaction will be well worth it. I encourage you to take the first step.

Jesse Newton is the author of Simplify Work: Crushing Complexity to Liberate Innovation, Productivity, and Engagement and the founder and CEO of Simplify Work. Follow him on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter, and contact him at [email protected].

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Jesse Newton is the author of "Simplify Work: Crushing Complexity to Liberate Innovation, Productivity, and Engagement." He is the founder and CEO of Simplify Work, a global management consulting firm that helps organizations throw off the shackles of debilitating complexity and reignite top performance.